Sep 16 2019 | By More

★★★★☆     Questioning intelligence

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Thurs 12 Sept–Sat 5 Oct 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Dealing with troubling questions about human interaction, the Lyceum’s adaptation of Solaris is – like all the best science fiction – not really about alien planets but about our own world.

There is nothing remotely neat or comforting about it, but it provides some moments of genuine theatrical magnetism.

Fode Simbo and Polly Frame. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical science fiction novel of 1961 is probably best known for its two movie adaptations – Tarkovsky’s stately 1972 version, and Steven Soderbergh’s more conventionally romantic Hollywood remake of 2002.

David Greig’s new adaptation, presented with Malthouse Theatre of Melbourne and the Lyric Hammersmith, harks back to the original source, although with some tweaking of the main characters’ genders. Any fans of the Tarkovsky film in particular will be surprised by the comparatively sprightly, even pacy, feel of this.

The story of scientists studying an ocean-covered alien planet that seems to be sending facsimiles of people from the humans’ pasts, whether in an attempt to communicate or for some other reason entirely, is elegantly told. The problems of understanding something utterly alien, let alone conversing with it, lead to some meditations on love, life, loss and the human condition that are genuinely interesting if not always seamlessly integrated.

Fode Simbo and Polly Frame. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Similarly, the visual impact of Matthew Lutton’s direction, while significant, is not consistent. Paul Jackson and Jethro Woodward’s light and sound design start off as disorienting and visceral, with the use of Toby Angwin’s visual effects on a descending curtain having real power. However, once the curtain has been raised and lowered thirty times, disguising yet another top-speed change to Hyemi Shin’s dazzling set, it becomes irritating.

The scale of the staging also works against a narrative that becomes steadily less about the infinite and more inwardly emotional. This is something that is beautifully expressed by the cast – Polly Frame, as Kris, the psychologist newly arrived on the space station orbiting Solaris, is wonderfully human and vulnerable, while Jade Ogugua and Fode Simbo give Sartorius and Snow, the scientists already there considerable depth. Almila Kaplangi, who shares the role of a child with Maya McKee, has real stage presence.

Keegan Joyce’s portrayal of Ray, one of the ‘visitors’ to the humans, starts off a little too much like a hyperactive kids’ TV presenter for comfort. The character is admittedly meant to be adjusting to the idea of being alive at all, and settles down as the play progresses, but it does grate somewhat.

Hugo Weaving & Polly Frame. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

No such problems with Hugo Weaving, who is only seen in filmed excerpts, but is as at home with a big screen as you would imagine. The scuzzy presentation of these inserts reflects the familiar device of trying to make a setting future-proof by having much of it already dated, with a space exploration programme that seems to rely on VHS cassettes rather than computerised technology.

That the visual syntax of the production is so dislocated is not necessarily a bad thing; the uneasy feeling it causes is appropriate for a production that raises questions about how we deal with each other and the worlds we have made – and provides so few answers.

Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Thursday 12 September – Saturday 5 October 2019
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.
Talk Show Solaris: Encountering Aliens
Monday 23 September: 7pm.
Guests include: Author James Meek, Professor Chris French, Dr Josie Peters and songwriter/artist Faith Elliot. Free but ticketed: Book here,
LYT Curtain Raiser: Solaris
Friday 27 September: 5.30pm.
The Lyceum Youth Theatre with a short performance, created in response to Solaris. Free. Phone 0131 248 4848 to book.

Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, London W6 0QL
Thursday 10 October – Saturday 2 November 2019
Mon – Sat:7.30pm; Matinees Wed, Sat: 1.30pm.
Information and tickets: Book here.

Lem’s original novel and Tarkovsky and Soderbergh’s film adaptations are available from Amazon. Click images for details.

Jade Ogugua, Polly Frame, Keegan Joyce & Fode Simbo. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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