MAKING connections is everything in David Greig’s new adaptation of Solaris, Russian writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, famously filmed in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky four years after a Russian TV version appeared. The book was adapted again for the big screen by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If the writer and artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh hadn’t connected with Matthew Lutton of the Melbourne-based Malthouse Theatre, Lutton’s production of Greig’s adaptation would never have happened.

As it is, Solaris has already enjoyed a successful run in Melbourne prior to its opening next week in Edinburgh, followed by a run at the Lyric, Hammersmith, who are also co-producers. This follows the Malthouse’s last visit to the Lyceum with Tom Wright’s searing adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay’s classic Australian novel, first published in 1967, and filmed by Peter Weir eight years later.

“I think David was surprised when I suggested we do Solaris,’ says Lutton, “but after I brought Picnic at Hanging Rock to Edinburgh, we decided we wanted to continue working together, but in a way that was more collaborative, making something that we could create in both cities.”

On the face of it, Solaris is a very different prospect to Picnic at Hanging Rock. Lem’s story of a psychologist despatched to a space station orbiting a distant planet in order to find out why the ship’s crew have gone insane is as darkly existential as it gets. It is also in alignment with some of the new wave of science fiction that grew out of the Cold War era of easily identifiable aliens into far trippier, self-reflective territory.

“When I re-read the book, I was drawn to how inherently theatrical the story is,’ says Lutton. “It’s these four characters in a space station, and there’s this incredible set of dramas and conflicts that come out of that. Once we started to look at it, both David and I were interested in this idea of people trying to connect, not just with other people, but with entire planets that are so completely different to your understanding. Are you able to connect with that? And if you can’t, imagine the tragedy and loneliness that comes from that.”

For Greig, “when I started to write the play, it was so deep and emotional, which isn’t what you might necessarily expect from science fiction, but the story is so deeply about grief and love and desire, as all these ghosts from everybody’s pasts start visiting the spaceship. They’re all from people’s memories, like replicas, almost, and of course everyone starts to go nuts.

“One of the questions the story is asking is how can we make contact. On one level that’s about contact between humans and aliens, but it’s also about contact between the dead and the living, and between men and women, and just between people and something other. If contact was something simple like us romantics like to think it is, that would be great, but contact can bring with it disease and violence, and it can get you hurt. It’s such a very human thing to be afraid of contact, but then you’re lonely, and being alone is unbearable. That’s the big human dilemma.”

This is a theme that has run throughout much of Greig’s work since early breakout plays such as Europe, first seen at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1994. While that play was set in a railway station in an un-named border town in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, the same desires and suspicions that filter through Solaris were very much present. This is something Greig recognised when he saw the Donmar Warehouse’s recent London revival of the play.

“It’s funny,’ he says, ‘but it’s the same plot as Solaris.”

For Lutton too, Solaris has echoes of things close to home.

“Like a lot of science-fiction,” he says, “there’s this idea of reaching out, which brings a colonial aspect to the story which is as present as it’s ever been. When you step into this new culture, does that culture befriend us or thank us? What are the ethics of encounter, and how do you encounter a new culture without causing harm? I can’t think of any incident in history where harm hasn’t been caused in those sort of situations.”

Lutton’s reference to colonialism obviously strikes a chord in terms of indigenous Australian culture as much as it did with Picnic at Hanging Rock. Solaris, however, broadens things out.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock had a specific Australian thing going on,” he says, “but with Solaris it’s more universal. All the characters have different ethics about what all this means, and they’re each trying to navigate their way through things in terms of what their own legacy might mean. The well-being of the planet is the last thing being considered. So it may be a story set in space, but at different points it feels like a horror story, a love story or a political narrative, and all sorts of things come out of that.”

As Greig says, “It’s a very now thing. Not just about politics. Solaris is about love, isolation, and how we yearn for each other, but can never quite make it happen. In these crazy times, it seems to be saying that all we can hold on to is the hope that we can connect.”

Solaris, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 12-October 5; The Lyric Hammersmith, London, October 10-November 2.