Those who think they know Chekhov's classic, The Cherry Orchard, are in for a surprise. Favourite productions and particular actors' interpretations may all be reassessed after seeing Janet Suzman's version, which she directs at Birmingham Rep in a joint production with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg.
For Suzman this is the renewal of a relationship with the theatre that was a beacon of hope during the apartheid era. Its production of Woza Albert toured the world, showing through its wry humour the reality of life under the old regime, while Suzman herself directed John Kani in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello at the Market in 1987.
Now she draws on her home country for her production of The Cherry Orchard, setting the play in modern times on one of the long-established English estates in the cherry-growing Free State (formerly the Orange Free State). She explains that there are large English estates in this Boer homeland that, founded in the 1860s, are as old as many Russian dachas.
Working from a literal translation by Tania Alexander, Suzman has rewritten the text to reflect the polyglot world of South Africa and the varieties of English spoken there. Characters have South African names and identities, so that Madam Ranevsky (played by Estelle Kohler) becomes Lucy Raademeyer. Of English ancestry, she was married to an Africaner, in what Suzman describes as "a rebellious marriage". Although she is now a widow, her husband is still a strongly felt presence in the household.
Chekhov's theme, of the passing of the old order, clearly has a parallel in recent South African history, but doesn't yanking the play out of its natural milieu distort its other aspects? Suzman believes not. "In fact," she says, "I believe South African society has much in common with Chekhov's Russia. To begin with there is the vastness of the country, the huge estates (10,000 acres and more) and great tracts of land to cross before you get anywhere. In a South African setting this feeling of a vast country should come to the fore again."
Even more important to our understanding of the play, she thinks, is the ferment of political and social change - the long philosophisings of Trefimov, or the reflections of Lopakhin upon his family's servitude. Says Suzman: "All this sense of cataclysmic change in late 19th-century Russia is now diluted by our knowledge of what happened next. But today South Africa is living through just such a period of change: of hopes, anxieties and tensions, but with no knowledge of the outcome."
Suzman, with her memories of growing up in South Africa, believes that Russian and South African societies are more similar than English society is to either. "In this country the industrial revolution changed everything; the UK is urban and sophisticated. But all the accretions of politesse are missing in Chekhov's Russia and in South Africa. Relationships are more up-front and more extreme. There is both more brutalism and more love. Gayev (Jack Klaff) is not urbane, he's a great, spoilt, immature baby, a man who's been nannied all his life, and this symbiotic relationship of masters and servants - which we see in the character of Feers, for instance (Putswa played by Tommy Eytle) - is well understood by all South Africans. A black servant or nanny was the person most white South Africans first learnt love from, the person whose bosom you slept against. It was often a very physical relationship and recent changes have disturbed many people on both sides of the colour barrier."
Suzman hopes her production will remove the play from being "a period piece" and make it feel real and alive again today. "You could say that, in one way, I'm returning it to its roots," she says.
Birmingham Rep from May 23 to June 14. Box office: 0121 236 4455