First published in The Times, Monday September 16 2019
The best-known novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem is a story that never dies. Solaris, which depicts a group of scientists attempting contact with a seemingly sentient planet, has been filmed three times, notably by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and Steven Soderbergh in 2002, and has been adapted several times for theatre and opera.
It is easy to see the attraction of Lem’s novel for stage dramatists. With its small cast of characters and encapsulated setting, the tale has more in common with Sartre’s existentialist drama than a battleship epic such as Star Wars. Where the movie versions have misguidedly swamped the human element in elaborate visuals, David Greig’s adaptation of Solaris is more melancholic ghost story than space opera. In Matthew Lutton’s slow-burning, unsettling production for the Lyceum (in collaboration with the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne and the Lyric Hammersmith in London), the setting becomes almost incidental.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
In both Lem’s novel and Greig’s play the sci-fi genre’s usual clear parameters between heroes and villains have been blurred. The main question posed by the crew orbiting Solaris is whether the planet, which has the power to generate the loved ones lodged in the consciousness of the human characters, is benevolent or malicious in its intent. While Kris (Polly Frame), the psychologist apparently reunited with her dead lover Ray (Keegan Joyce), perceives the event as the fulfilment of a dream, her colleague Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) views the arrival of her drowned child with horror.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Greig and Lutton zero in on these conflicting responses to create an at times moving investigation of memory, grief and manipulation. As in Lutton’s 2016 stage version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the sense of unease creeps in around the edges, with the tension spilling over in horrific set pieces without ever descending into melodrama. The production makes great use of Hyemi Shin’s set design, with the interior of the space station providing a serene counterpoint to the planet’s undulating surface, and the action is underpinned by a suitably ethereal soundscape created by Jethro Woodward.