The notion of science-fiction on stage is itself slightly alien. The genre conjures notions of a vivid universe born of an imaginatively charged short story, or the mesmerising special effects upon the silver screen. This is in fact the trajectory that Solaris has traversed, taking origin in the 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, before being cast onto Soviet cinemas in 1972 by the esteemed Andrei Tarkovsky. The 2019 production at the Royal Lyceum, adapted by David Greig, sees the story undergo perhaps its most radical iteration in an inspired stage-adaption that successfully modernises the classic in a way that explores and emphasises newfound avenues of the great question plaguing the lips of cast and audience alike: “What is Solaris?”
Covered entirely in water and precariously balanced in orbit around two suns, the planet of Solaris and its investigation is the cause of the crew’s mission and plight. After two years aboard an orbiting space station, the skeleton crew of Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua), Dr Snow (Fode Simbo) and Dr Gibarian (Hugo Weaving) are ready — and desperate — to return home. However, upon her arrival, relieving commander Dr Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) falls into the pained and emotive rabbit hole of trying to understand the enigmatic planet. Her presence causes Solaris to behave in previously unseen ways, but whether this behaviour is benevolent is yet to be seen.
Greig’s adaption sees Lem’s philosophically and emotionally charged original take on a greater human element through the introduction of gender-balanced cast and a more conversing, rather than brooding, dialogue. Polly Frame’s excellent performance as Kris Kelvin as the female lead successfully transforms the essence of Solaris from male astro-pioneers racking their brains against an impregnable environment to a deeper, contemplative exploration of humanity and the emotive mystery of consciousness. The question of the suspected intelligence of Solaris is a genuinely perplexing, well-constructed riddle that morphs throughout the play, uniting the audience and characters in a constant battle of theory falsification.
The sophisticated mystery at the play’s core is stylishly paired with truly unsettling and thrilling moments of horror, entirely in credit to the fantastically eery and compelling performance of Keegan Joyce as Dr Kelvin’s ‘visitor’, Ray. Jade Ogugua as the stoney Dr Sartorius seems slightly hard done by by one-dimensional lines, with Fode Simbo as Dr Snow also deserving of more speaking time to develop his character. No toll is taken on audience immersion, however, thanks to a visually effective set and a precision production which accentuate the Kafkaesque nature of the crew’s mission objective through a labyrinthine space station and dynamic scene changes.
Although underdeveloped in some aspects, Solaris is nonetheless an incredibly absorbing and stimulating piece of theatre. With themes of love, communication and the unknowable, Greig’s adaption is the epitome of a well considered modernisation that demonstrates the power of gender re-imagination to delve into the complexities of a classic whilst exploring previously untouched ideas.
Solaris runs at the Royal Lyceum until the 5th of October. £10 student tickets are available.
Image: Mihaela Bodlovic