Say "The Cherry Orchard set in South Africa" and, after the briefest pause, their faces will light up: "But of course!" they cry. It's that obvious. A freed serf buys the landowning family's estate; the new order takes over from the old. South Africa had an unofficial feudal system, which was pretty much made official in 1948 when the Nationalist Party came to power and implemented apartheid. That firmly precluded any "freed" black man from ever buying land, let alone a white estate.
Back in 1976, when the full might of grand apartheid was going about its ghastly business, my friends Barney Simon and Mannie Manim founded the multiracial Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The Island, perhaps its most famous product of those years, has just had a stunning re-run at the National Theatre in London. Barney, the artistic director, used to mull with me about what plays might be useful as a medium for expressing the status quo; Othello, naturally enough, was one; The Cherry Orchard was another. We could but dream, albeit wistfully, of a new order, just as Anton Chekhov had done in his great play through the mouth of the tutor, Piotr Trofimov. But a new order was quite evidently not on the cards - the Group Areas Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Immorality Act, singly or together, would prevent any viable enactment of a relocation. So we put our dream play to one side, in the vain hope that one day things would change. Frankly, we didn't expect it to happen in the foreseeable future. I remember my aunt, the opposition MP Helen Suzman, saying in the mid-1980s that there was practically nothing left to do in the House, as every single loophole that could threaten the implementation of apartheid had been well and truly plugged by some draconian Act or other.
And then, in 1989, all hell broke loose - glasnost, perestroika and the end of the communist empire. Gorbachev at one end of the globe and de Klerk at the other both saw the writing on the wall and took action, neither knowing where precisely it was to lead them. By 1990, Nelson Mandela had walked out of prison and into greatness, and in 1994 the first democratic elections were held - the new order had triumphantly arrived. That day in April, when I cast my vote in London's South Africa House along with thousands of jubilant ex-patriates, was one of the best days of my life. Don't ask me why exactly South Africa has such a strong hold on our feelings, but perhaps it's really very simple: the country of your birth is like your parents - in the blood and ineradicably part of your make-up, for better or for worse; the country of your adoption is like your spouse - chosen and loved for what it is, but essentially separate from you. And, probably, you cannot even begin to write a play about a country until you know the call of the first bird outside your window when you wake. That is why I felt able, when the time came, to write about contemporary South Africa.
I had already had a dry run by adapting Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan - a parable about urban poverty - to present-day Johannesburg; now the more complex masterpiece beckoned. Barney had quite unfairly died in 1995, worn out perhaps by the terrible exigencies of running an open theatre in a closed society, so I was bereft - and so was the Market Theatre. The funniest and wisest of men was no longer there to offer his rabbinic insights. But there was always Chekhov, inspirational as ever; unfinished business to attend to for Barney's sake.
Cherries grow in South Africa along the eastern border of the (quondam) Orange Free State, the old Boer Republic that abuts the little Kingdom of Lesotho, a British protectorate. It is a small industry (the yield is between 600 to 2,000 tons per annum), but important for the area, which holds an annual cherry festival in the little town of Ficksburg to the north. This particular area of the Free State is settled by up to 25 per cent English stock, as the British encouraged their settlers to buy cheap land and so act as a buffer between their small kingdom and the troublesome Boers in the rest of the province. Many had made their fortunes in the diamond rush at Kimberley in the 1860s and foresaw a peaceful emulation, as landed gentry, of their cousins back in Blighty. These areas are known by the preponderantly Afrikaans population as "rooi-kolle" - literally, "red-collar districts". The English were "rooi-neks" - "red-necks" - here, too.
Initially, I had abandoned the idea of setting The Cherry Orchard in one of the great Cape estates, unwilling to swap Chekhov's poetic iconography for a more prosaic vineyard. Anyway, vineyards don't blossom, and the white ocean of a fruitless spring cherry orchard in full flower is redolent of the family's stultifying nostalgia. That this white effulgence must, in the end, be chopped down to make way for new housing was central to the new metaphor of the play. Apartheid, too, had to go, way past its horrible apogee.
And then a relative of mine, who farms in the Free State, told me about an auction that had taken place in 1996, where the entire contents of a large estate had been disposed of in the biggest sale of its kind in South Africa. An Englishman called Newberry, who had made his fortune in Kimberley, had acquired 10,000 hectares along the Lesotho border from a man called Prynn, shortly after the Basotho wars. The last of the line, Trevor Newberry, a bachelor like Chekhov's Gaev, had died of drink, intestate, and so the bankrupt Prynnsberg estate had to go up for sale. When I went to visit it in 1998, I could see from the now ravaged garden the distant blue peaks of the Maluti mountains on the Lesotho border. The eccentric stone house was in poor repair, but traces of Edwardian grandeur remained - Art Deco wallpapers and intricate plaster ceilings now peeling away. I had found my local exemplar of Chekhov's ailing estate.
The Afrikaners have always felt an affinity with the plays of Chekhov, recognising in them both a passion for the land and a nostalgia for a way of life under threat. Since the real battle for liberation was essentially between the Afrikaners and the blacks - the English were largely irrelevant in the peace-making process - I was interested in drawing the Afrikaners into the equation, and decided that the dead husband should be a more active presence in the play (Chekhov tells us little about him but that he died from an excess of champagne) . In The Free State, Johan Rademeyer is made into a "verligte" (liberal) Afrikaner advocate, like the noble Bram Fischer (who defended Mandela at the Rivonia Trial and died in prison), and it is his coloured love child (Varya in the original) who is adopted into the household. The idea was Michael Frayn's, but I leapt at it, because it helped to widen the colour spectrum that so obsesses all South Africans. Rademeyer's house, then, could host the all-important bookcase - now a library - that holds the means of enlightenment for black people brutally deprived of an education.
The idealistic tutor, Trofimov, becomes an activist who falls in love with the legitimate daughter, Anna. The idealists of the Rainbow Nation, now free to marry and devote themselves to nation-building, become flesh. The jumped-up Yasha, spoiled by his sojourn overseas, becomes a young man who cannot adjust to home - the sad fate of many exiles. The ancient manservant, Firs, unable to discard the certainties of the master-servant symbiosis, is left behind. The conservative old guard will eventually die off, too. Most crucially, Lopakhin, the freed serf, is transmuted into one of the new black entrepreneurs, eager to return his tribal lands to their rightful ownership, and the malignant Group Areas Act is finally trodden into the dust of history. The spirit of the dead Rademeyer permeates every aspect of the protagonists' history, and his torch is carried forward by the liberating spirit of his wife, Lulu. Chekhov's Liubov Andreevna Ranevskaya ("Liuba" means "love") takes on a more politically adventurous hue in her South African sister.
I am taking the briefest of journeys here, through the myriad complexities of responding truthfully to the most original of playwrights. But I begin to see how much South Africans seem to have in common with their Russian counterparts - passionate about the land, vulgar, emotional, ebullient, hospitable, affectionate, often brutal, and with a strong sense of the ironies of history. But are these the realities? After all, it is only a play.
"The Free State" is on tour at the Poole Arts Centre, 14-18 March (01202 685222); the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 21 March-1 April (0113 213 7700); and the Richmond Theatre, 3-8 April (0208 940 0088). The UK tour is followed by a season in Pretoria, South Africa