Lyric Hammersmith, 2nd November 2019
One book, a Soviet TV adaptation, two films. And now a play. And, between us, the SO and I have all the bases covered. SO, a big fan of Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1961 dense sci-fi/horror novel, me, unusually tolerant of Tarkovsky’s high culture, languid 1972 film, and both fans of Soderbergh’s more straightforward 2002 remake with Clooney playing Dr Kelvin and Natasha McElhone his dead wife. .
With David Greig as adaptor, having thoroughly succeeded with Touching the Void and The Suppliant Women in his last two outings, and some very favourable reviews from the initial run at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh where DG is Artistic Director, we were both quite excited, particularly after our epic bus journey to get there. (As time expanded it felt like the A310 itself was auditioning for the role of the eponymous blue planet).
A good sized and young audience for the Saturday matinee, and some mesmeric rolling wave cinematography from Tov Belling and Katie Milwright, and the reveal of Hyemi Shin’s bright monochrome set only increased our expectations. Not for the last time I was reminded of the look, feel and intention of Alistair McDowall’s excellent X at the Royal Court a few years ago. What followed was a stripped-down, simplified, but still essentially faithful rendition of the story, (though sticking mostly to the Tarkovsky film) which didn’t quite live up to its theatrical potential.
A gender switched Polly Frame plays Kris Kelvin, the scientist sent to investigate the strange goings-on at the space station studying the water planet Solaris. There she meets the wary Sartorius, (Jade Ogugua in another smart gender switch), and the geeky Snow (Fode Simbo). The planet itself is apparently conscious, sending “gifts” first in the form of objects and then as visitors from the crew’s past. Dr Gibarian, recently dead, possibly by his own hand, possibly a cancer, has left videos, (cue a giant sized projection of Hugo Weaving), offering Kris his insights. Much of the plot however, like the Soderbergh film, centres on Kris and her relationship with her visitor, Aussie surf boy, Ray (Keegan Joyce), her last, uninhibited, love who may offer her some sort of emotional redemption. Unfortunately this version of Ray, who is real and not just a figment, literally has no back story and cannot cope with the absence this creates.
This being a play we clearly need words, however good the technical prowess of the creatives, (including, in addition to the above, lighting from Paul Jackson, picking up on the planet’s red and blue suns, outstanding sound and composition from Jethro Woodward and further visual effects from Toby Angwin). David Greig’s adaptation cleverly obviates the need for prologue, flashback, exposition or resolution. The three surviving humans, Snow and Sartorius being significantly less fucked up by the experience than their literary equivalents, collectively work through the implications of what they have stumbled upon together. But this is where the text slightly lets down the production. Having set up the, shall we say, echo chamber, the opportunity for the three to share their own stories and to debate what this means for wider humanity is only partly explored. No one likes a talky play but surely here, there is after all a vast, infinite intelligence playing with our protagonists on the doorstep, a bit of philosophical theory might not have gone amiss. Existential isolation, infinite space, the problem of consciousness, all are central to Solaris. And these are scientists so no reason why they can’t come over a bit clever clogs.
And this could easily have been done without losing the human dimension. Whilst we do not see Snow’s visitor who he has “destroyed” we do Sartorious’, a small girl child, and learn why she is there, and Ray and Kris’s past, and present, attraction is explored at length. Matthew Lutton, who is AD at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, who co-produced, oversees the impressive staging and the Aussie end of the casting, Hugo Weaving (who was sooooo good in Patrick Melrose as the abusive Dad) and Keegan Joyce, are more than a match for the Brits. The short scenes and cinematic cuts, with shuttering screen, prompt dislocation, but with nimble stage management from Kiri Baildon Smith and team, do not impede momentum.
This was, in spite of the missed opportunities, a satisfying piece of theatre that perhaps deserved an audience beyond just Melbourne, Edinburgh and London, though these are three of the finest cities on our planet. I see that Mr Greig’s next project is a musical version of Local Hero. Meanwhile I see us Poms are exporting Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling and Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys to the good people of Melbourne, both of which I can heartily recommend, to add to delights such as Photograph 51, Kiss of the Spider Woman and True West coming up. And in Sydney I see the Theatre Company is showing The Beauty Queen of Leenane as we speak, with The Deep Blue Sea, The Writer, Rules for Living and A View From The Bridge to come.