What is Solaris? Watching this muddled stage version is unlikely to yield any answers – and is all too likely to launch into dead space whatever desire you may have to find out.
Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, the subject of three films, prioritises psychological complexity over intergalactic wars, exploring human guilt, and the impossibility of breaking out of human ways of thinking for long enough to understand alien life forms; director Dimitry Devdariani has adapted the dense and complex work into a muddled play, one that leaves the emotions tepid and concentration tested.
Attempting sci-fi on stage is ambitious, especially in the middle territory between the small-scale shorts of Misshapen Theatre’s Blast Off! and the colossus that was Time, a 1980s musical featuring, among other feats of astronomical expense, a central character that took the form of an enormous, floating hologram head. This production suffers under budgetary restrictions that leave the long corridors of the space ship to be conjured by three white-masked figures bearing what look like shower doors, under misleadingly organic ruffles of gauzy fabric; stifled by a framed stage that lends itself to more domestic scenes, the strongest moments are when action spills out onto the black painted auditorium floor.
The spaceship that hosts the action is a research project that has spent years investigating the planet Solaris and the alien life form that inhabits it; Kris Kelvin arrives from Earth to be met with a series of surreal encounters with the ship’s remaining occupants, who seem strangely unconcerned by his friend Dr Gibarian’s death. The ringletted Dr Snow (John Exell) greets him with Willy Wonka-ish energy, while Jacob Trenerry plays the laboratory-bound Dr Sartorius with all the nasal staginess of Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff. Amongst such caricatures, Charles Church’s performance as Kelvin is stolid and awkward, a black hole unequal to the emotional torments at this play’s heart. The play’s best moments come from Rheya (Tara Godolphin); materialising to test Kelvin as each crew member is experimented and tried in turn by Solaris, the exploration of her suicide and her awareness of her own status as apparition are handled with relative clear headedness. Elsewhere, though, coherence is lost in linguistic gas clouds, with complex or important lines thrown away, while necessary divisions or mood changes between the slow scenes are effaced by an endlessly repetitive acid drip of a sound design.
Dr Snow, cutting through the often baffling layers of metaphor and attempts at pyschological complexity, exclaims ‘This business has got all of us a little confused’; a feeling resounding offstage through the audience, and presumably through actors and production team too at the crucial stages. Lines are fluffed, presumably too elliptical to engrave themselves permanently on the memory, and the lack of any sense of danger or tension gives the feeling of orbiting not a vast and unknowable planet, but the Circle Line on slow Sundays gone by.
Not pretty or slick enough to be camp, but lacking the insight and depth to be taken seriously, Solaris inhabits tonal intergalactic space; no sparks of wit light up the dark.