Science fiction and horror are incredibly difficult to do well on stage. David Greig’s new adaptation of Solaris, directed by Matthew Lutton, artistic director of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne (where this production was first staged earlier this year), convincingly encompasses both.
Written in 1961, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel has been popularised by both Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film adaptation and Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 George Clooney-starring remake.
It’s set on an on-site research base where psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) and her jumpy new colleague Dr Snow (Fode Simbo) have come to study the ocean planet, which loops around two suns in a figure of eight. The planet has moods – red days and blue days, the former good, the latter not so much – and an all-but-unknowable intelligence.
Then Kelvin wakes up and finds herself in bed by her old lover Ray (Keegan Joyce); he has been inexplicably transported across the galaxy to be with her, his memory shrivelled. It gradually becomes apparent that when the crew members gaze out upon the rolling waves of Solaris from the viewing deck of their station, the planet looks deep inside their souls.
While it’s possible to read the communication barrier between the scientists and the planet as an analogue for the Iron Curtain, in this age of division on social media, Greig’s exploration of the concept of communication in the face of our own perceptions and preconceptions feels incredibly timely.
Hyemi Shin’s set is as gorgeous as it is inventive. It consists of a series of sterile, white-panelled walls with concealed panels that open to reveal doorways, furniture and a series of retro sci-fi knobs and buttons. When a full scene change is required, a screen glides down in front of the set, plunging the auditorium into darkness, save for the boiling surf of Solaris projected on screen.
Frame, Simbo and Jade Ogugua, as the third member of staff on the base, Dr Sartorius, work well together as an ensemble. They play characters who are united in their belief in science, but also distinct from one another. Frame’s Kelvin craves human connection, Simbo’s Snow is driven by geeky obsession and Ogugua’s Sartorius carries around deep emotional wounds. Joyce’s Ray, meanwhile, is childlike and nonplussed, expressing his lack of comprehension through self-harm. There’s also a pre-recorded cameo from Hugo Weaving as dead colleague Dr Gibarian that cleverly utilises his star power.
Perfectly suited to the theatre, the subtlety of Lutton’s production is its strength. The way the tone of the piece shifts from initial terror to hope speaks volumes about how the thing we should be most wary of in the darkness is our own fear of it.