Visually striking and dramatically inventive, David Greig and Matthew Lutton’s new Solaris establishes dazzling first contact. But – like the space station’s skittish crew – too often it lacks the emotional bravery to grapple seriously with the source material’s philosophical heart.
Like Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Solaris begins as a scientific expedition to learn more about the mysterious ocean-covered planet of the title takes an eerie turn, and psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives to wrap up experiments and ready the remaining crew for their journey home. However, upon coming onboard she finds the team haunted by strange apparitions; ‘visitors’ who seem to be moulded directly from the crew’s own painful memories. Soon attracting a ‘visitor’ of her own, in the shape of a dead former lover, Kris and the crew struggle to separate reality and untruth and figure out how to communicate with the planet below them– an unsettling new kind of consciousness they had never prepared for.
As director Matthew Lutton mentions in the show programme, the claustrophobic confines of a nearly-abandoned spaceship are excellent theatrical fodder, and this new production certainly looks damn good on stage. Hyemi Shin’s design (mostly) eschews star-fields and space-suits, instead emphasising the crew’s porous grasp on reality by trapping them in a white box where airlocks, doors, furniture, equipment and bodies appear and disappear like tidal detritus, alongside the ebbing and flowing of the crew’s own ethical quandaries. Against this blankness, Paul Jackson’s floods of red, blue, yellow light overwhelm the stage, affecting instant changes in mood. The starkness of these shifts reminds us of the disorientation of space, and the omnipresence of Solaris the planet; the only outside force the crew experiences. The visual effects (from Tov Belling, Katie Milwright and Toby Angwin) are used sparingly and are more breathtakingly effective for it. During scene changes, the dark, tumultuous liquid surface of Solaris projected against a black screen keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, rattled by Jethro Woodward’s unnerving sound design. In the scenes where Polly Frame’s Kris Kelvin replays extracts from her dead mentor Dr Gibarian’s video diary (an authoritative and affecting Hugo Weaving), the picture floods the back wall of the set, and Gibarian becomes a portentous voice from beyond.
However, this sparse, horror-like cinematography isn’t always borne out by the action on-stage. Lutton’s direction seems to struggle to hold the atmosphere taut, letting emotions disintegrate between scenes and leaving the characters’ fears and grievances left unresolved. The most jarring of these moments comes late in act two, where (the otherwise excellent) Jade Ogugua’s frosty Dr Sartorius tearfully admits that the little girl that haunts the ship is actually the image of her dead daughter. Until this point, Sartorius and the little girl have never interacted, and now – with little more than a psychologically suspect nudge from Kris – the cynical doctor takes her daughter’s hand and seems to resolve all her parental guilt in one fell swoop.
Greig also seems to have struggled to make the cast of four into useful characters. As mentioned, Ogugua’s Sartorius is the most well-developed, capturing the standoffish nerviness of a scientist emotionally and intellectually out of her depth. But Fode Simbo’s Dr Snow gets little to do other than wield a video camera and continuously point out Kris’ lack of objectivity. As Kris, Polly Frame doesn’t exhibit much of Kris’ struggle. She falls for the watery doppelgänger of her dead lover almost immediately, and her development from objective scientific observer to a woman tormented by loneliness seems over before it’s begun, robbing the production of much of its emotional through-line. Ironically (or perhaps this is the point) the most arresting performance on stage is by far Keegan Joyce as Ray, the Solaris-sent image of Kris’ dead lover. His confusion, rage and despair are at the heart of the show, easily overpowering Kris’ own psychological revelations.
Maybe closer familiarity with Stanislaw Lem’s book, or either of the Tarkovsky/Soderbergh films would let this review be kinder to the latest Lyceum/Malthouse co-pro. I truly wanted to love Solaris. But as a sci-fi nerd, regularly undone by the likes of 2001, Moon, Arrival – and on a difficult day, Star Trek: First Contact – this gorgeous, ambitious new production failed to move me. At its heart, Lem’s Solaris is a bell-clear, heart-wringing exploration of human love and loneliness. Unfortunately, when the darkness descended for the last time of Kris’ ambiguous ending, I was impressed by the theatricality of it all – but emotionally coolly adrift.
Solaris plays at The Lyceum, Edinburgh until 5th October, before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith. More info here.