Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

Solaris

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.

Europe at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Europe

Donmar Warehouse, 6th August 2019

I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.

I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).

Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.

Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).

The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.

That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.

The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.

BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.