Solaris – Theatre Review

During the early stages of the space race back in 1961, author Stanisław Lem released a science fiction novel that would quickly become a sci-fi classic. Ten years later, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky brought the tale to the screen. Move forward another 30 years, James Cameron along with director Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney re-imagined this classic tale. Now in 2019, The Malthouse Theatre and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh bring us the world premiere stage adaptation of Solaris. Written by David Greig and directed by Matthew Lutton, Solaris is a tale of love, loss and mankind’s fascination with the great unknown.

Set in a distant galaxy on a space station orbiting an ocean planet, Solaris, crew Dr. Snow (Fode Simbo) and Dr. Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) have been researching this unique planet as it orbits between two stars. The play opens with the arrival of psychologist Dr. Kris Kelvin (Leanna Walsman), where she discovers that her long time mentor, Professor Gibarian (Hugo Weaving), had sadly passed away. Struggling to come to terms with the circumstances of her dear friend’s death, Kris catches a glimpse of a little girl (Flora Feldman / Marlia Chofor) running through the station. Unsure if a hallucination, Kris retires to her quarters. A screen drops across the stage awash with a projected display of the violent ocean swell from the planet below and once the screen lifts, the set has changed.

Kris asleep in her quarters is not alone. A male figure is in her bed and holding her in a loving embrace. Thinking it is a dream, she is frightened when she sees her former lover, Ray (Keegan Joyce). Shocked by his presence, Kris frantically questions his existence and is again unsure if Ray was just another hallucination. After consulting with the crew, Dr Kelvin discovers that Snow and Sartorius have been experiencing the same phenomena since their arrival to Solaris. First there were inanimate objects, then horrifying monsters and now intelligent entities that are manifesting themselves as loved ones they had lost in the past.

Professor Gibarian strongly believed that Solaris was conscious and had long been sending these visitors in an attempt to communicate. With the aid of Gibarian’s diary recordings, Dr. Kelvin begins to study Ray as he interacts with herself and the crew. However as the research slows Drs. Snow and Sartorius become increasingly frustrated as Dr. Kelvin struggles to stay on task, constantly warning Dr. Kelvin of the dangers of blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Are these visitors merely projections of the hosts subconscious? Are they manifestations of family and lovers long lost, sent by Solaris, giving them the closure needed due to untimely or tragic deaths? Or are Solaris’ intentions something more sinister? This stage production is a brilliantly adapted story that will keep you wondering and questioning more throughout the performance.

Leanna Walsman’s pours so much emotion into Dr. Kris Kelvin as she struggles between her duty as a scientist and the strong personal connection of her subject. Keegan Joyce’s seemingly pure, childlike representation of Ray is impressively effortless and is at times, somewhat comical. Leanna and Keegan’s chemistry on stage is pure and a joy to watch. You find yourself helplessly riding their waves of emotions throughout the entire performance. Fode Simbo and Jade Ogugua as Drs. Snow and Sartouris are equally as great in this production. You can really feel their frustrations as the mission sways off target.

Hugo Weaving, although only shown via video recordings, brings much needed balance and logical reasoning with his character Professor Gibarian. Each time he was on screen, I found myself hanging on every word, on edge waiting for the key piece of the puzzle to Solaris’s existence. In a role for a character that isn’t really there, you certainly felt the full weight of his presence.

Science Fiction is rarely presented to us on stage and it is an absolute treat that Solaris was my first sci-fi play. Writer David Greig and producer Matthew Lutton have most certainly outdone themselves with a story that has been told several times before and still managing to make it feel fresh, new and exciting. The set is simple yet very effective, with the drop of a screen and quick modular design, you are instantly transported to another location on the station as the screen lifts. The lighting is also just as clever with the use of blue and red tones to mimic the strange orbit around the two stars.

Solaris is a brilliant piece of science-fiction theatre which makes you think, brings up so many questions and leaves you wanting more. I am confident that everyone attending this clever adaptation will have their own differing answers and theories to, “What is Solaris?” If you want to see an enticing, captivating, thought provoking production that will stay on your mind long after you’ve left the theatre, seeing Solaris is a must.

Solaris is playing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre until the 21st July. For more information and tickets visit:
Photography by Pia Johnson.

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