‘Since this is already two movies, why make a play that seems like a movie?’: Robert Reid on the Malthouse adaptation of Solaris
At the heart of Solaris is a mystery: part ghost story, part whodunnit. Adapted by Scottish playwright David Greig from the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, this premiere at the Malthouse, directed by Matthew Lutton, is poised somewhere between the atmosphere of the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky movie and the dramaturgy of the 2002 remake with George Clooney. It never quite settles into a disciplined philosophical reflection on life, death, love, memory or presence; rather, it ranges across these subjects, gliding from each to each stylishly, but without substance.
The only thing that makes this adaptation feel unique is that the awakening consciousness of the planet-wide entity below manifests as the goofy ex-boyfriend from Adelaide.
Dr Kris Kelvin (Leanna Walsman) arrives on board Solaris station, sent by a mysterious Institute to investigate strange goings on reported there. She makes a passing reference to the “Berton expedition” on her arrival. Anyone who’s seen the films will know that it’s a reference to the previous scientists sent to study the exo-planet Solaris, who have been discredited and shunned for their insane recollections of their mission.
The young Berton tells an investigatory committee that on a fly over of the planet he has witnessed the clouds part, the ocean rolls back and shape itself into landscapes and vistas familiar from earth, even coalescing into a giant replica of a human child. All this is excised from the stage adaptation, but the detail calls out to its predecessors.
The station has been experiencing visitations from the planet below in the form of water-based replicas of the unconscious thoughts of the crew, beginning with small objects and progressing to memories of people. Kris finds herself waking one morning next to an old lover, Ray (Keegan Joyce), who seems to be an immature, almost childish, Australian ex-boyfriend.
As in the book and movies, Kris’ first reaction is to push Ray out of the airlock. One of the other other scientists on the station, Snow (Fode Simbo), tells Kris a little later that it’s everybody’s first reaction. These apparitions – or “visitors”, as Snow calls them – have been appearing to everyone on board. The third crew member, Dr Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) explains that the visitors aren’t human, but are instead manifestations of the consciousness of the planet below, attempting to make contact with them in the ship.
The notes to the production suggest that this adaptation is more based on the book than the film. Lem famously criticised Tarkovsky for having not made Solaris, but Crime and Punishment. Talking about the character of Harey (Ray in the Greig adaptation), he said that the appearances of the visitor character were “for me an exemplification of certain concept which can be derived almost from Kant himself. Because there exists the Ding an sich, the Unreachable, the Thing-in-Itself, the Other Side which cannot be penetrated. But in my prose this was made apparent and orchestrated completely differently… This is just some emotional sauce into which Tarkovsky has submerged his heroes, not to mention that he has completely amputated the scientific landscape and in its place introduced so much of the weirdness I cannot stand.”
This isn’t to say that the original author’s intent should be sacrosanct; but it does make me wonder what Lem would have thought of how Greig interprets the ideas in the novel.
Each of the Solaris Station’s crew reacts in their own way to the visitors: one is keen to document, another wanting nothing to do with them. But Kris’ relationship with Ray is the focus. In Tarkovsky’s film, this relationship occasions an extended contemplation of mortality, humanity, memory and identity. The same is true here in Greig’s version, except the pace of the staging truncates these meditations into grabby monologues and forced moments of epiphany.
Consequently, it feels like the play doesn’t land on its subject. In fact, it introduces new “ah ha” moments right up to the end. In the final scenes, for example, Dr Sartorius says to Kris: “Humans pollute everywhere we go”, a reason not to stay in orbit around the planet, but also why they must destroy all evidence that they’ve ever been there, to ensure that no humans ever return. To accomplish this, they destroy a bunch of the sentient ocean with a laser so it won’t remember them; but despite this, they still leave behind a human, Kris, who has bonded with the visitor version of Ray, even though they’ve destroyed the part of the planet that created “Ray”… The final scenes are a tumble of outcomes that put me in mind of the “emotional sauce” in Lem’s critique.
Greig’s script follows a much more conventional dramaturgy than Tarkovsky’s. The newcomer, Kris, arrives and discovers the planet’s secret, which is largely handled through some fairly inelegant video projection of the now-dead former lead researcher, Gibarian (Hugo Weaving). I’m unsure about the video diaries being realised as literal videos: I wonder if what is gained by this science fiction trope (we all used to talk to each other through big tv screens in the future) is lost in the living presence of the actor as Gibarian. The longish monologues by Gibarian are delivered by a projection as the present Walsman stands alongside them, listening and watching. Every time, this static moment leaches more energy from the stage.
Something sits oddly in this staging of a work of science fiction also. I’m a big fan of the idea and salute the attempt, but something in the translation to stage doesn’t quite capture the science part of the fiction. The “insert science stuff here” bits of the text feel like place holders, in the same way the set construction seems a bit too much like a set (although the moment of Kris chasing a visitor manifestation as a human child (Marlia Chofor) through the corridors was impressively cinematic.)
The design seems to take its visual cue from the “People in Space” films of that era such as 2001, Sleeper and even Alien; replicating those sleek, compact designs that suggest the future is Ikea, but without the fluidity. The inside of Solaris station, blocky and bright white, is cleverly designed to become a plethora of different rooms and corridors by using the opening of a few panels and the sliding in or out of a few furnishings – a space bed here, a space stereo there.
There are some technological anachronisms that point to a nostalgia for the old days of imagining the future, a fascination with retro-aesthetics that are now old enough to seem new again: for example, the VCR and video tapes Kris uses to play Gibarian’s video diaries. Even in a deliberately altered universe where retro-tech still exists it’s hard to reconcile an old timey VCR being a vital piece of payload on a space station orbiting a planet outside our solar system.
The stage is framed like a letter-box cinema screen, which emphasises the cinematic quality of the ideas, and makes the whole thing quite like watching a movie. Which begs the question, since this is already two movies: why make a play that seems like a movie? It feels like a lost opportunity not to explore the concepts in Solaris with a live audience and a shared liminal space. Paul Jackson’s lighting harks back to the trippy cinematography of the psychedelic inner/outer space exploration films: long bars of starkly contrasting colours fall across the stage, intermittently highlighting the moments of psychological confusion and stress and calling to mind Mark Rothko and Dan Flavin. Which is a nice touch, echoing Tarkovsky’s obsession with the Old Masters, which fills the walls of the space station with Brueghel and Rembrandt.
Unlike the Tarkovsky, two-and-a-half dialogue-heavy hours, the Malthouse production rips along at a decent 90 or so minutes. It’s plenty of time for the performers to sketch out their characters, their positions on the ethical and philosophical problems posed by Solaris and its visitors, and to focus in on the psychology of the relationship between Kris and Ray.
The performances are strong enough that, despite the flatness of the adaptation, I find myself engrossed in Kris’ emotional journey. But I’m left wondering what this adaptation really adds. This reshapes the movies convincingly to fit a 90 minute live format, but not much more. Ultimately this Solaris feels like an exercise.
Solaris, by David Greig, adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Directed by Matthew Lutton. Set and costumes design by Hyemi Shin. lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward. Performed by Leeanna Walsman, Keegan Joyce, Jade Ogugua, Fode Simbo and Hugo Weaving (video). Malthouse Theatre, The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and the Lyric Hammersmith, Malthouse Theatre. Closed. Royal Lyceum Edinburgh September 12-October 5. Lyric Hammersmith London October 10-November 2.