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I don’t understand: Solaris at the Courtyard Theatre (**)

Classic sci-fi story Solaris gets a staged overhaul in Dimitry Devdariani’s adaptation, but this isn’t an easy transition – the haunting, dreamlike quality of Lem’s book (and the classic Tarkovsky film) are reduced to a lot of very worried faces and ridiculous effects. This is a bold and ambitious project, but a very flawed one nonetheless at the Courtyard Theatre.

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris has always had an uneasy relationship with adaptation – Andrei Tarkovosky’s classic 60s film made quite a few alterations to his basic plot, as did Steven Soderbergh’s George Clooney vehicle in 2002 – but this seems only fair for one of the more obtuse of the Polish writer’s stories. Basically speaking, the plot features a group of scientists trying to communicate with a living ocean on a far-flung planet. In their efforts, they unwittingly cause the ocean to generate ghost-like images of their past regrets, “visitors” reminding them of their failings who slowly start to recognise their own bizarre half-existence.

It’s a complicated, difficult story, with numerous bizarre twists and turns, and both international film versions sought to rectify that by adding in simplifying subplots. Devdariani doesn’t seem to have done the same, and this may have been where the problems first started. Try as the actors might, they struggle to inject this version of the story with any energy, drifting listlessly from static scene to static scene without any dramatic force propelling them forward. And with much of the complex scientific dialogue retained from the book, it’s quite telling that the most common line is “I don’t understand”.

Apart from the piece’s own difficulties, Devdariani also doesn’t show us the main alien presence of the living ocean – it doesn’t appear on stage until the end. And it’s only mentioned vaguely – it isn’t at all clear to those unfamiliar with the story what this ocean is or why it’s doing what it’s doing. Without a visual reference for the threat, we’re left with a stageful of actors pulling “worried” expressions continually and in all directions, and any tension they may have built up evaporates as quickly as it was created. In the hands of more capable actors, this might not have been such a mis-step, but the cast here struggle with basics – it’s never a good sign when you can’t understand the lead when sitting in the front row!

That’s not to say that the production is wholly flawed – the set design is very clean and slick and the costumes are generally anodyne enough not to stand out awkwardly – but the lighting is poor, with most of the actors often half-lit and from a poor angle. The sound design, trying to find a piano theme, just ends up being repetitive and annoying – imagine Michael Nyman with less emotive resonance. Using the actors, wearing white stage masks, as “invisible” stage hands to create the semblance of corridors, sliding doors and the like wouldn’t ordinarily be a bad idea, but just adds unnecessary bodies to a play all about who is and isn’t there – another poor decision. And why the set’s a good three metres back from the front row is also totally incomprehensible – squeezing everything into the back of a large space is just a waste.

I have to applaud Devdariani’s ambition in trying to stage something as difficult as Solaris. I entered the theatre excited at the possibilities of staging the cerebral complexities of the novel, free from the limits of the film versions, where everything has to be actioned and visible – but this is not the way to do it. A case in point: in the final scene, Kelvin (the lead doctor) decides he can’t live without the ghostly image of his deceased wife, and descends to the living ocean’s surface. In the book, it’s vague what happens when he arrives, but in Devdariani’s version, the cast climb under a cloth to create a rolling mass, Kelvin walks on (unlit and without any space), and there’s an awkward version of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam that looks more akin to a man calling an elevator.

I’d love to say there was more to this – I spent most of the evening desperately hoping that some of the book’s brilliance would shine through. But this is a poor attempt to capture the work – instead of being freed on the stage, this version of Solaris becomes even further enmeshed in overcomplications.


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