Theatre

Although Stanisław Lem’s classic novel Solaris provides rich source material for a stage adaptation, there’s a disappointing banality to Malthouse Theatre’s production. By Alison Croggon.

Solaris

Keegan Joyce and Leeanna Walsman in Malthouse Theatre’s Solaris.
Credit: Pia Johnson

Adaptations have been a bone of contention in Australian theatre for years. Do they betray, as critic Andrew Fuhrmann claimed recently in the Herald Sun, “a creative and intellectual malaise”?

On the question, I’m agnostic, as generalisations are pretty useless in art – everything depends on the individual work. Some adaptations are brilliant; others are not. Whether they’re a problem is really a matter of balance. Are there too many? How many is too many?

There is perhaps a grain of truth in Fuhrmann’s claim – it is much easier, after all, to market a familiar title than a new one. But creative and intellectual malaise can be every bit as evident in an original work as in adaptation. And I worry that strident calls for originality are, in the end, merely fetishisations of novelty.

After all, art is intrinsically adaptive: even the most abrasively radical creation draws on earlier work. And any adaptation is – or should aspire to be – a new work in its own right. Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, from Coriolanus to King Lear, are adaptations of earlier texts.

The Malthouse has recently mounted three stage adaptations in a row, the middle act in a season of nine works. They run the gamut of outcomes. Its spectacular production couldn’t hide that Cloudstreet, a famous 1998 version of Tim Winton’s novel by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, was an exercise in jejune nostalgia. Wake in Fright, through Declan Greene’s adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s novel, was transformed into a viscerally powerful one-woman show, which brought Cook’s vision of colonial Australia screaming into the present.

Solaris, adapted by Scottish playwright David Greig from Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, is something else again. A co-production between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, London’s Lyric Hammersmith and the Malthouse, it seemed very promising: for one thing, science fiction is much underexploited on the contemporary stage, despite a rich theatrical tradition. But the production ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.

Solaris has spawned several versions, most notably Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, which along with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is one of the most influential science fiction movies of its time. Tarkovsky transformed Lem’s visionary story into a slow-burning psychological thriller, infusing it with his personal and philosophical obsessions to create a film that still retains – 40 years after it was made – a brooding, immersive power.

Written in 1961, Solaris is one of the gems of a rich culture of Soviet-era science fiction. Driven by volcanic social, intellectual and technological change, Soviet science fiction draws on fertile literary traditions and includes works such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire Heart of a Dog or Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic – which was also adapted by Tarkovsky into the film Stalker.

The novel begins when psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to a research station that orbits the planet Solaris, in order to decide whether its mission should be terminated. The station is now all but deserted, reflecting the decaying state of Solaris research, known as Solaristics. Of the three remaining scientists on the space station, one has just died.

Solaris is an enigma. The planet revolves around two suns and is inhabited by a single, huge life form: a sentient ocean. Lem exploits this imaginative conceit to interrogate notions of selfhood, individuality and human solipsism, setting them against a phenomenon that stupefies human understanding.

All the scientists are haunted by strange “visitors”, emanations of the Solaris ocean, which reaches into their memories and creates simulacra of people they have known. Kelvin’s visitor is his ex-wife, Rheya, who took her life after he left her. The visitor believes she truly is Rheya; when she discovers she’s a copy, a mere projection of Kelvin’s memory, she melts down in the ensuing psychological crisis.

Solaris is a complex novel. Lem creates entire genealogies of knowledge, using them to critique the human narcissism that can only perceive reflections of itself, and which at the same time is almost wholly ignorant of its own desires. His mind-bending descriptions of the colloidal sea posits the known against the unknowable, asking if it’s possible for human beings to truly understand anything beyond their own experience.

Many of the most important aspects of the novel simply can’t be translated into drama, which is inevitably human-centric. So every adaptation has taken its liberties. Lem seems to have been routinely disappointed: his opinion of Tarkovsky’s film was close to apoplectic. “As I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels,” he wrote, “he didn’t make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment.” Lem was just as caustic about Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake: “I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that … cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space.”

Lem’s major beef was that Tarkovsky “completely amputated the scientific landscape and in its place introduced so much of the weirdness I cannot stand”. Tarkovsky’s “weirdness” is, of course, the strength of his film – the oppressive space station becomes a stage for existential horror, an ultimately devastating portrayal of human narcissism.

No doubt Lem would make the same criticisms of Greig’s play – the anthropomorphism is relentless. But in this adaptation, there is no redeeming weirdness, no haunting psychological strangeness. In its place is a banal idea about love in which Lem’s idea of the sublime barely exists.

You would think that Solaris, as a text and a concept, could be the occasion for some deeply imaginative stagecraft. At the beginning of the show there are a couple of flashes of striking imagery – a young girl appearing and disappearing, manifestations of hypnotic waves – recalling the surrealities and cruelties of theatre-makers such as Romeo Castellucci’s Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. But the production turns out to be a kitchen-sink drama in science fiction costume.

Even the central psychological traumas that drive the book are neutralised. The idea that Solaris manifests its characters’ darkest subconscious desires is gone altogether. Kelvin’s lover, for instance, has drowned in a random accident, rather than died by suicide because of Kelvin’s cruelty.

Meanwhile, the unknowable ocean is transformed into a kind of familiar cousin – its actions are resolved to likeness responding to likeness, water calling to water. Lem’s descriptions of the colloidal constructions of Solaris’s ocean become recognisable human creations: cathedrals, cities, gardens. And so on. Tarkovsky uses Lem’s mind-wrecking alienness as a tool for ostranenie, to make the familiar strange; this production does the opposite and ends up domesticating it.

Matthew Lutton’s production reflects this imaginative constriction. Hyemi Shin’s design reduces the huge Merlyn stage to an antiseptic white box – the Star Trek version of a spaceship, with gleaming surfaces and sliding doors. I was waiting for the stage to open up, increasingly conscious of the unused space, but it never did. My guess is the production is designed for much smaller stages in Britain, but the letterbox effect is frustrating.

Between scenes a fire curtain rises and falls with an increasingly predictable rhythm, providing a surface for projections of abstract ripples. Paul Jackson’s lighting design feels uncharacteristically uninspired; the only aspect that introduces a smidgen of awe or strangeness is Jethro Woodward’s sound design.

Somewhat paradoxically, given the emphasis on sentiment, the performances are alienated and unaffecting. The only actor who brings any sense of realness to the production is Hugo Weaving as the dead scientist Gibarian, and he isn’t even present on stage – he exists only as a video diary projected onto the wall.

Perhaps the least satisfying aspect is the gender-flipping of the protagonists. On the surface it’s a potentially interesting idea, but it isn’t thought through. Kris Kelvin, played by the hardworking Leeanna Walsman, is now a woman mourning her dead lover Rey – a rather too eager-to-be-liked performance from Keegan Joyce. But flipping the sexes here just falls headfirst into another gendered cliché: the woman who immolates herself for the sake of a man’s capricious love.

According to pre-show interviews, Greig and Lutton sought to undo the metaphor of Solaris as the feminine principle, the ultimate unknown. I think that’s a misreading. It’s true that Lem’s fiction is almost irredeemably sexist, but his vision of alienness in Solaris is genuinely ungendered. It might have been much more fruitful to explore the critiques of colonisation that are threaded through the novel.

What is most disappointing in these changes is the lack of any real quarrel with the ideas that drive the book. You feel the adaptors just don’t take science fiction seriously – we get a dazzle of novelty, but none of Stanisław Lem’s passionate curiosity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Planet dearth". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.