Solaris (2 stars)


credit: Helen Maybanks

Adaptation of great novel does not find its own identity

Despite the fashionable use of video projection, an imaginative soundscape from Jethro Woodward and a central conceit that uses the immensity of cosmic space to explore notions of consciousness and empathy, David Greig's script is a disappointingly flat and this adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's classic science-fiction novel fails to develop either the weighty philosophical musings or the emotional depth of its small team of scientists circling an apparently conscious planet.

The Lyceum's recent trend for adapting well-known films or novels might aim to demonstrate the unique qualities of live performance, but Solaris never finds its focus or justifies its existence beyond Lem's novel or Tarkovsky's acclaimed film adaptation. From its slow start – the mysterious antics of the planet reveal why the characters struggle to interact with the new arrival, but not the actors' curious lack of engagement with their characters – to a second half that throws in a multiplicity of serious themes to no great impact – the production struggles to remain consistent. Beginning as a meditation on the nature of an alien consciousness, it veers into a serviceable study of how romantic relationships can be a series of emotional projections rather than meaningful connection, then explores the nature of being itself, before throwing in a very brief comment on how humans are very destructive and paranoid. These are all intriguing ideas, but the only one that is given space to develop – the romantic projections – is arguably the one least relevant to the outer-space setting.

Greig's script appears tentative with the source material at first, before it gradually settles into a more traditional structure, with a clear protagonist – the arriving psychologist Kris – and the ensemble cast operating as a commentary on her personal and professional struggle. The majesty of Lem's concept becomes the context for an optimistic love-affair: despite the gnomic diary extracts from the deceased commander of the space station (played with appropriate resignation by Hugo Weaving), the drama is less about the contact with an alien mind than the familiar alienation of the human self. It's a disappointingly bourgeois use of cosmic horror, that is enlivened by some eloquently poetic comments and a powerful central performance by Keegan Joyce as the 'visitor', a manifestation of the alien consciousness which adopts the form of Kris' deceased lover Ray.

Ironically, Ray is given the most intriguing character development, spiralling into despair at the realisation that he is both a cypher for the planet's attempts to communicate and a facsimile of Chris' ex-lover: he follows a personal journey that is missing from the human characters, Dr Snow (Fode Simbo) and Dr Sartorius (Jade Oguga), who flip between emotion and intellectual positions at the demand of the plot. Polly Frame's Kris has a more coherent characterisation, and she is given several scenes that demand a strong performance – Oguga and Simbo have very little to do beyond observe and provide context.

The weaknesses of the script are exposed by Matthew Lutton's staid direction. A closing curtain marks the transitions between scenes – an old-fashioned, dull and delaying technique, even if the mysterious ocean of Solaris is projected onto the canvas – and drags out the length of the production, without conjuring any sense of tension or depth. The set suggests a white, sterile space station, but little more: in comparison to the abundance of science fiction films that explore similar scenarios, this scenography feels lazy, and the use of video-tape for Gibarian's diary entries is an oddly archaic detail that adds nothing.

Failing to settle on a single narrative, almost desperately failing in the final scenes to claim a serious and profound message – and inevitably descending into a sentimental finale – Solaris is neither an effective statement of theatrical potential nor a satisfying interpretation of Lem's novel. Mystery and immensity are sacrificed for a traditional theatrical structure, the cosmic anxiety of humanity's place in the universe is replaced by musing on romantic alienation (a problem in both cinematic adaptations, according to Lem himself). Solaris wants to speak of the mystery of being but can only express the mundanity of reducing huge ideas into theatrical conventions.

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until Sat Oct 5; Lyric Hammersmith, Thu 10 Oct – Sat 2 Nov


Psychological thriller exploring the deepest fears of a crew on board a space station orbiting a strange planet.