Writer: David Greig
Director: Matthew Lutton
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
It is a cultural truth, universally acknowledged, that in space no one can hear you scream. But in David Greig’s stage adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s 1960s sci-fi classic, you can certainly hear the howl of the existential void.
One of the appeals of space dramas are the built-in opportunities to explore human themes against a backdrop of infinite possibility. Strand your characters in a metaphorical (or actual) black hole – as here, on board a spacecraft orbiting a mysterious ocean-covered planet – and watch them squirm as the comfort of the world as it is known shifts and shimmers away from them.
Those who know the basis of Lem’s story from the 2002 film version with George Clooney will find a number of gender-swaps, as Dr Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) relieves control of the research vessel from recently deceased Dr Gibarian (a pre-recorded Hugo Weaving). She discovers pretty quickly that strange ‘visitors’ have been observed aboard the craft, as she encounters Ray (Keegan Joyce) a former lover who cannot possibly be on the ship by the laws of Earth-based reality.
As with any good sci-fi, the fantastic setting and incredible plot points serve to open up an authentically emotional piece of storytelling, here exploring the way painful memories and regrets intrude on contemporary experience, and of the nature of attachment to our world and the people in it.
Anyone who finds sci-fi frustrating for its liberties with logic or rational coherence may balk at some of the twists and turns of the story, but broadly Grieg outlines the interstellar detail with a light touch, and focuses on the struggles his four characters are having with life, the universe and everything: does it matter to Kelvin that Ray is not really there, or could she accept him as an avatar substitute for the lover she lost? How does Ray deal with his dawning recognition that he only exists as a figment of Kelvin’s memory? And what of the manifestations created by the psyches of the other crew members?
The least credible element of the story may be the ease with which these figures of science engage their less rational, more emotionally literate sides, and whilst Frame’s performance captures well the internal turbulence of rekindling a relationship that previously failed, it seems a too speedy departure from her arrival as the voice of science and reason. Jade Ogugua’s Sartorius and Fode Simbo’s Snow both retain a more detached scepticism about the metaphysical mysteries that unfold, although they get landed with some of the more lumpen elements of exposition in Greig’s script.
Matthew Lutton’s direction manoeuvres the characters through a satisfying array of philosophical and existential enquiries, and Hyemi Shin’s sterile but versatile design economically evokes the classic examples of spacecraft settings, albeit built with a slightly clunky hinge-and-bracket style that is more IKEA than NASA.
Abruptly stylised scene changes create an eerily dislocating sense of shifting time and place, and the show’s lighting – credited to both a ‘designer’ and a ‘realiser’, whatever that may mean – is efficiently used to track the subtle changes in tone from clinical sterility to emotional engagement.
Greig works some woke platitudes about mankind’s detrimental impact on its environment into his too-convenient resolution to the characters’ relationship with the planet Solaris itself, but in all there’s enough heart and heft to the tale to reward the stellar suspension of disbelief.
Runs until 5 October 2019 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic