With Solaris, the Malthouse, in a co-production with British theatre houses the Lyceum and the Lyric, have brought science-fiction to life.  This is a new adaptation from David Greig after Stanislaw Lem’s original novel, and, as it’s theatre, is unable to rely on the flashing special effects of film or long strings of literary prose.  The production is all the stronger for it.  Solaris is an immediate, intelligent and sometimes touching night (or afternoon) of theatre.

Adapting the novel was always going to be an interesting risk, given how notable the film adaptation is by the Russian auteur Tarkovsky.  Greig’s adaptation stays well clear of any mimicry of the famous film.  Greig instead works to bring his own elements of nostalgic warmth and by the close, replaces the personal guilt of the original, with a more modern guilt of climate crisis.  In Greig’s hands, Solaris becomes a more upbeat and warmer study of loneliness, grief, attraction, and existentialism. 

Matthew Lutton directs, by his own standards, a relatively pared back production.  Through scenes of battles of human connection, he stages provocations and questions.  The questions asked are both at a philosophical scale, but also an intimate one in the style of a thriller: what’s just under the skin?  What the form and style cost the production however, are moments of story-telling that are uniquely theatrical, as the production is forced to play things straight and verbally.

Leeanna Walsman leads the cast as Kris Kelvin, the newcomer to the space station who quickly learns of the mission, and the peculiarities of the planet below.  Walsman’s performance is confident and assured, as a scientist unravels.  The audience first experience the horror of the station through her eyes.  The crew are harbouring a secret, there’s a screaming child on the loose, and in her first night in the station, she wakes up to a man from her past in her bed.  She quickly becomes sucked into her own emotions as she struggles to reconcile her attraction and unease with the alien mimicking her ex-boyfriend, played by Keegan Joyce.  From here, as Walsman’s world implodes, we’re less able to empathise with her, leaving the audience without an emotional anchor.

As an alien born of nostalgia, fantasy and memories, who slowly grows a self-awareness that plunges him into a depression, Joyce doesn’t have an easy role.  He brings an almost puppy-like enthusiasm here, and a bouncing and liquid physical portrayal that energises the stage.  Unfortunately, it’s the confusing nature of the character, it’s in-between and greyness where Joyce struggles.  His doesn’t quite stir empathy with his pain, nor sparkle with an attraction that would suitably entice Walsman’s Kelvin.

Hugo Weaving appears on screen as the recently deceased Dr Gibarian, left behind in video diary form.  Weaving is as magnetic as you would expect, and is gifted with some of the production’s best lines as he ponders the nature of the planet and life below.  The video diary projections are well integrated and seamless, and Weaving by nature of the close up, is able to provide some of the nuance which is missing elsewhere.

In stand-out parts are the station’s opposing scientists, Jade Ogugua as Dr. Sartorius and Fode Simbo as Dr. Snow.  Ogugua bristles and has a thin defensive shell complete with her confusion of emotions held closely underneath.  One of the show’s highlights is a scene in which part of Ogugua’s defences are lowered, and her emotions begin to pour onto the stage and into the audience.  It’s deeply affecting and pitch perfect in its scale and delivery.  Simbo’s as Snow seems to be having fun, and it shows in his performance.  He both chills in the opening and delivers some welcome levity and comedy, as he later chides Walsman for her lack of scientific prudence. 

Hyemi Shin’s set is wonderfully pragmatic, shifting in panels and slides to create the different settings of rooms in the space station.  Paul Jackson is able to create vivid moods with his lighting design, but, like the majority of the play, is hurt by being used in a straight and literal fashion.  Where risks are taken is within Jethro Woodward’s sound design, with whispers and static thrown into records.  Unfortunately, there’s not quite enough or any interplay with this piece of design for the idea to flesh itself out.

As a whole, Solaris is intriguing theatre.  It’s not often that we’re taken to space on stage, and this production does so with an assured confidence.  While its well written, and with some strong performances, ultimately the direction ensures that we’re neither arrested to our seats by a thriller, nor warmed by a production with too little heart for a play about whether we should connect or not.

Images: Pia Johnson