Solaris Review (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne)

Humans were offered a glimpse into what lies beyond planet Earth when in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into outer space.

As Scottish playwright David Greig notes, it was at a press conference shortly after he returned to Earth that Gagarin was asked if he had seen God. “No,” he replied, “and I had a good look around”.

Gagarin’s voyage on Vostok 1 held up a mirror to our existence, Greig says. As far as anybody could tell, we were alone.

Greig and director Matthew Lutton draw on these themes of self-realisation and loneliness in the stage adaptation of Solaris — originally a science-fiction novel published the year after Gagarin’s journey by Polish writer Stansisław Lem.

Presented by the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, the Lyric Hammersmith London and Malthouse Theatre – which is presenting its worldwide premiere – this production is a compelling exploration of the duality between the mysteries of the universe and the human psyche.

Dr Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman, of Wentworth and Safe Harbour) is confronted by an erratic crew within moments of arriving at a space station orbiting the planet of Solaris.

Following the death of Dr Gibarian (played by Hugo Weaving, who appears in pre-recorded video diaries), the only remaining crew members are Snow (Fode Simbo) and Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua).

The crew quickly begins to suspect that Solaris is sentient, analysing the crew as they analyse the planet, torturing them by manifesting their past traumas into material forms.

The memory of Ray, Kelvin’s ex-lover who drowned at sea, materialises before her. Played by Rake and Please Like Me star Keegan Joyce, Ray is an alien presence that Joyce conveys with enough abnormal behaviour to unsettle, and amuse, the audience.

The perplexed crew are agitated by these manifestations of their past. If the oceanic planet is conscious, is it malevolent or just seeking to communicate? Should we just leave it alone?

Walsman skilfully balances her character’s quick descent into hysterics with an aura of authority; powerfully conveying feelings of loss, love and past turmoil with vulnerability and strength of conviction.

Simbo’s Snow is a minor but welcome role, bringing some affability and good humour to otherwise mostly tense proceedings. Meanwhile, Ogugua’s grief-ridden Dr Sartorius commands the stage with her unfettered loyalty to the crew’s original scientific duty.

Weaving is an amiable presence in the pre-recorded videos, akin to an under-appreciated, benevolent high school science teacher (think Scott Clarke from Netflix’s Stranger Things.)

The impact of the actors’ delivery is enhanced by the top-quality production design, with Lutton deploying striking visual elements that convey the philosophical and psychological drama of the narrative.

Paul Jackson’s lighting bathes the stage in radiant colours, symbolising the light radiated from the two suns Solaris orbits, one of which is blue, the other red.

These colours consequently affect the moods of those onboard, with the action on stage noticeably shifting depending on the colour being emitted. As Snow says to Kelvin, “red days are easy, everything feels warm; blue days are cold and dark…it was a blue day that Dr Giberian died”.

Hyemi Shin has created a set akin to a jigsaw puzzle, with different pieces shifting seamlessly to reveal new parts of the space station as the action requires, apparently without assistance.

Hyemi Shin has created a set akin to a jigsaw puzzle, with different pieces shifting seamlessly to reveal new parts of the space station as the action requires, apparently without assistance.

When these shifts occur, a screen covers the stage with a projection of Solaris’s ocean, underscored by an ominous soundscape curated by Jethro Woodward. These design choices create flawless transitions between each scene, making it feel like real changes in space and time have occurred.

Ultimately, this production of Solaris is a warning about humanity’s destructive nature, based in its general failure to understand a foreign entity. It analyses our fear of the unknown, and loneliness.

It also reminds us that we are flawed, complex creatures. As Ray tells Kelvin, “maybe we are all just waves…ebbing and flowing, constantly changing … and our skin is all we have to hold us in.”

Solaris plays the Malthouse theatre until July 21.

Feature image: Pia Johnson

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