Solaris at the Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh (Wed 11th Sept to Fri 4th Oct) is an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1961 philosophical novel of the same name. This novel has already been made into a film twice, with the 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky still being favoured by many Science Fiction fans over the 2002 Hollywood blockbuster starring George Clooney. This new “for stage” play by David Greig and Director Matthew Lutton was always going to be on very difficult terrain from the beginning though, as few genres are more difficult to bring to the stage than Science Fiction, and a big part of that problem is the ever present issue that “Science Fact” has so often over-taken “Science Fiction” and therefore maintaining any technical and scientific credibility with an audience becomes increasingly difficult.
I had thought that this work by Polish writer and visionary Stanislaw Lem would allow us as an audience to stay clear of many of the pitfalls of regular “SF” on-stage as this at its heart is a story of the psychological make up of what makes us human, and in the right setting we could actually dispense with much of the hardware of SF and concentrate on the people at a very deep and emotional level. Sadly, that is not what we get here for too much of the time.
Without giving anything of this story away, our stage setting is a part of the orbital space-station/scientific observatory that is orbiting a distant alien planet called Solaris. Solaris is basically an planetary ocean system, but it is more than that, Solaris is possibly one planetary organic being that is sentient in a way that its human observers cannot understand, and through the introduction of “visitors” to each of the crew is observing the humans just as much as they are observing it.
I have to admit a liking from the very beginning for the white minimalist look of the space station interior (Designer Hyemi Shin) with careful lighting design (Paul Jackson) and the 1980s technology of the station does have a nice retro feel to it, but do we actually need this very limited technology at all? Oddly we also seem to be on a space station with no visible computer technology, guidance systems or environmental control systems, plus one that has created a positive gravity environment with no explanation either. The projection of our planetary surface on to the safety curtain of the theatre is a nice effect though. The continual dropping and raising of this curtain to allow scene changes is, however, repetitive and all too often breaks up the flow of our story, but I can understand the physical requirements to have to do this. Is our dropping curtain perhaps a raised or lowered screen on the orbital observation platform at times too? Not sure of that one.
For myself, my biggest problem with this production is that we really do not get involved at anything more than a superficial level in the many questions that this story raises about us as human beings, and despite the efforts of our on stage cast - Polly Frame (Kris Kelvin), Keegan Joyce (Ray) Jade Ogugua (Dr Sartorius), Fode Simbo (Dr Snow) with Hugo Weaving (on video) as Dr Gibarian - what could be an exploration into the dark areas of our human psyche is instead an almost light-hearted and at time jovial superficial viewpoint. There is little about any of the main crew performances here that gives me any insight into the terror and mixed emotions that they must be feeling. The almost child-like characterisation of “visitor“ Ray is interesting at times but the novelty soon wears off.
Perhaps one of the most interesting lines in this production is the almost throw away comment about one of these visitors “She has no soul”, and this simple, but profound statement is never opened up for discussion or development.
This being the early part of the 21st century, we do of course have the almost obligatory commentary on current environmental issues, and in the context of this play they do make interesting food for thought, but ultimately the real opportunity to examine the inner soul, emotions and basic instincts of what makes us human, for better or for worse, is simply missed here all too often.
Review by Tom King