Review: Solaris

Enigmatic vision of isolation

By Leeor Adar

Of all planetary science-fiction writing, Solaris, remains one of the most cerebral and enigmatic. Published in 1961 by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Solaris has found itself adapted for cinema and the stage a number of times. Solaris emerged at a time when space travel was new and vogue, still unfurling its mysteries to the world. The possibilities of what the universe had to offer, the terror and terrific, captivated the imagination – and clearly still does today.

Award-winning playwright, David Greig, breathes new life into the work, catapulting a female heroine into its centre. Matthew Lutton directs one of his most evocative works yet, with the usual intensity of sound design by Jethro Woodward, which we have come to expect from his productions.

In this adaptation, Solaris, a planet at the far reaches of space, is visited by a small cluster of humans. For over two years no contact has been received from this expedition, and it is upon the arrival of Dr Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman) that some rattling truths about the crew’s time in isolation emerge. Through a series of tapes, the recently deceased leading scientist, Gibarian (Hugo Weaving via video), reveals to Dr Kelvin his discoveries of the lonely planet, which is clearly attempting to make contact with the crew on board.

Fode Simbo and Leeanna Walsman_photoPiaJohnson_005.jpg
Featuring Fode Simbo and Leeanna Walsman. Photograph by Pia Johnson.

Aloneness, the frightening alien other that nestles itself in the mind, is at the heart of the work. Hyemi Shin’s set design extraordinarily creates the sterility of space travel and its disconnection from the familiar. A series of white moving parts typical of space travel juxtapose with scene changes incorporating a visual curtain of black liquid waves from the planet below. The set design mimics the depths of human intention, and for the more poetically inclined, the depths of the soul as it invites connection. It is unclear if the planet is inviting the crew into itself, or vice versa, remaining a point of fascination and uncertainty.

Lutton asserts that the power of representing science fiction on stage is through its ability to explore alternate realities, and Solaris is the kind of work that suits the confinement of the stage perfectly. The shifting spectrum of primary colours injects both beauty and trepidation into this world, expertly designed by Paul Jackson. The final image of Dr Kelvin standing alone, her shadow awash with red lighting is reminiscent of the feminine power of another famous science fiction performance. Alone, Dr Kelvin faces the dangers of her own mind rather than the danger of aliens that Ellen Ripley must entertain.

Leeanna Walsman is in her element here, and an excellent cast supports her. Fode Simbo as Snow, Jade Ogugua as Sartorius, and Keegan Joyce as the “visitor”, Ray, are captivating. Weaving’s presence via video is warm and earnest, adding a layer of depth to this already quality production. There is a crackling humour in the writing and acting, despite the gloom of the world they inhabit, and the audience regularly laughed and connected with the performances on stage.

Solaris makes for a pleasurable theatrical experience in every way. The questions that the characters explore, particularly on our power to inflict the worst of ourselves onto an innocent other, are pertinent. Like Solaris, we all seek connection – but what are we prepared to do to keep it?


Solaris runs at Malthouse Theatre until 21 July. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson