If a sentient planet existed, it would be unfathomably hard to explain. How to put into words a consciousness so vast, ancient and alien? We’d struggle to begin.
It seems only right, then, that each time it is told, the story of Solaris shifts in shape. First, came the 1961 novel by Stanisław Lem, coupling dense tracts of tech-speak with an unknown terror worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. Where the 1972 Tarkovsky movie was spare and reflective, the 2002 Soderbergh version was all about the wish-fulfilment romance between George Clooney, as a newly arrived spaceman, and Natascha McElhone, an apparition of his former wife.
Likewise, David Greig’s adaptation, the most satisfying of them all, is its own thing. Although rooted in the novel, it takes bold and rewarding liberties with character and plot. This is partly to make theatrical sense; the crew of the playwright’s gender-balanced spaceship are now talkative instead of taciturn, their attempts to understand the watery planet a collegiate enterprise, the better for us to know what’s going on.
It’s partly also to home in on the themes of loneliness, communication and unknowability. In Greig’s version, Solaris learns to talk to its visitors step by step, manifesting itself in increasingly sophisticated ways. First, it sends gifts of Earth-like objects, and eventually emissaries in human form.
The more real these manifestations become, the greater the existential crisis. Polly Frame, excellent as psychologist Kris, is emotionally torn when Keegan Joyce appears as long-lost boyfriend Ray. He is as attractive and as inscrutable as the planet itself. Pulled in two directions – by scientific rigour and human passion – Kris sees an escape from loneliness in the very thing that will make her more isolated. Matters are no easier for Ray, a personality without a past, slowly destroyed by self-awareness.
All this is consummately staged by Matthew Lutton in a co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre, bringing a human scale to the otherworldly seascapes and arid spaceship interiors created by designer Hyemi Shin and the technical team. With its sharp, cinematic cuts and rumbling waves of sound, Solaris troubles and tantalises.
• At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 5 October, then at Lyric Hammersmith, London, 10 October to 2 November.