This new play, written by the acclaimed David Greig, came to London all the way from Melbourne – where the production premiered in June 2019. Afters its successful run at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this August, London audiences are lucky to be able to catch it at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.
And it is certainly a show worth catching – particularly if you are a fan of science fiction novels. Solaris is indeed an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel with the same title. Audiences might also be aware of the two popular screen versions of the novel – one made by the Russian legend Andrei Tarkovsky – and a more recent one starring George Clooney.
It is not often that we get to see a science fiction piece on the stage. Whilst there are numerous novels and movies of the specific genre, the stage perhaps does not offer all the necessary tools for such explorations. Truth be spoken, there are moments during the performance, that the cinematography by Tov Belling and Katie Milwright feels limited. I was, indeed, hoping to be shown more of the planet Solaris. The piece certainly lacks the visual grandeur of films such as Nolan’s Interstellar and Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, but one has to accept that it provides us with a scary intimacy of what is happening within a spaceship many many miles away from earth.
Solaris tells the story of psychologist Kris Kelvin (powerfully performed by Polly Frame) who arrives at a space station at this newly-discovered planet named Solaris. In the space station she meets the two crew members Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) and Dr Snow (Fode Simbo), and it is with them that Kris gets to experience the “visitors” that Solaris sends to them. As the crew members have come to realise, Solaris, is a planet with a sense of consciousness – it’s a ball of consciousness in other words – which has realised the arrival of humans and is plaguing them with “visitors” who have human form but who are actually made of water. Kris is confronted with a visitor from her own past, in a meeting which stirs painful memories and realisations.
The narrative of the piece is very powerful and intriguing, while one feels completely engrossed to the story the moment that these human-like, and yet water-made beings arrive. The intellectual and philosophical dilemmas running through the whole piece are many. Over the course of the two hours, the audience find themselves constantly bombarded with questions like, what is consciousness, what is a scientist’s duty to humanity, how can one face the deepest recesses of a human mind.
One of the strongest elements of the performance is the excellent pace and rhythm underscoring it throughout. Sound designer and composer Jethro Woodward has done an excellent job with his intense score, and in collaboration with lighting designer Paul Jackson the sharp changes and sudden jumps to different locations within the space station, are just extraordinary. The use of stark red and blue lighting, the harsh black-outs, and the intense contrasts between lighting states, are extremely powerful in transporting the audience within a cosmos which progressively becomes more and more unreal and dark.
All in all, this is a strong production which might leave some science-fiction fans asking for more, but which will certainly please most theatre-goers with its captivating narrative, a powerful performance, and some very interesting philosophical dilemmas.