The Courtyard Theatre, London
Solaris, probably best know as the 2002 Stephen Soderbergh film starring George Clooney, is science fiction psychological thriller adapted from a novel by famed Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem.
It’s set aboard a spaceship researching the oceans of the planet Solaris. However, Solaris turns out to be a sentient planet and it, in turn, probes and analyzes the thoughts of the scientists by manifesting their secret, guilty concerns into human form for each to confront.
The story starts with a psychologist Dr Kris Kelvin (Charles Church) arriving from earth to the space station. He is met by one of the researchers, Dr Snow (John Exell) who appears emotionally disturbed. In his initial, almost garbled, welcome, Snow repeats a warning to Kelvin about ‘visitors’ to the ship. From this point, we are taken on a journey that exposes Kelvin to the same destabilising experiences the rest of the crew have experienced.
In seeing the condition of the scientists and watching Kelvin go through the same experience, the play offers a philosophical look at human characteristics and a desire to repeat mistakes time and time again.
The production and design is simple, but highly effective. The use of props is kept to a minimum and basic lighting techniques keep the action flowing and focuses ones attention on the characters and their situation.
The cast present the rather wordy script very well, with John Excell, as the near-mad Dr Snow, particularly strong. The direction is solid and well paced. The only let down is the script.
Solaris, the novel, is not your average laser beams and aliens sci-fi romp. It’s an exceptionally intelligent look at the human condition, the inadequacy of communication between human and non-human, and ultimately what it means to love. These lofty explorations provide the real depth to the story but somehow get lost in the play.
The first half of the play is near brilliant. It’s unnerving, tense, and even slightly scary. As the audience travels with Kelvin on his new journey in the spaceship, each revelation for him is a revelation to the audience; his anxieties, concerns, confusion and fear. By the time interval comes you’re at the edge of your seat desperate for the story to continue.
However, Act 2 looses its way. As Kelvin moves from tentatively and fearfully exploring the new to slavishly and monotonously experiencing the now, the story starts to fade. It gets too bogged down in trying to represent the underlying themes that the tension rapidly disperses and you’re left with a confusing jumble of a story. Themes are not addressed deeply enough to give proper context or clarity and by the dénouement the story is so confused that you’re left wondering ‘what happened?’
All of that said, there’s more than enough in this production worth seeing. The first act in particular is a glorious example of how simple, well constructed and performed theatre can be more compelling and engaging than almost anything else out there. And for that alone, this is well worth a visit.