Ta Main Dans La Mienne Pit, Barbican, London

Love letters that bring a fine romance to life
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The Independent Culture

A visiting production by Peter Brook, the great English director who has long been based in Paris, is always to be welcomed.

A visiting production by Peter Brook, the great English director who has long been based in Paris, is always to be welcomed.

This time he arrives with a piece that is at the opposite extreme from the pyrotechnics of his nine-hour version of the Hindu Mahabharata . A simply yet very subtly staged two-hander - derived by Carol Rocamora from the correspondence between Anton Chekhov and his actress wife Olga Knipper - Ta Main Dans La Mienne (Your Hand in Mine) is an exquisite, glowing miniature.

Performed in French with English surtitles, it affords a quiet, deeply moving experience.

Theatre based on letters can be very lumpy and literal. A bad director would have had Chekhov (who died of tuberculosis in 1904 just six years after meeting Olga) coughing up blood, and the two of them fiddling with pens and stationery. He would have cast actors of the right vintage and made them up to look like old photographs.

Brook rinses the piece clean of all such "realistic" redundancy. Performed with minimal props, and warmly lit by Philippe Vialatte, the production is richer and more haunting because the actors, Michel Piccoli and Natasha Parry, are theatrical veterans.

That they have reached an age beyond that attained by Chekhov bathes this love story, cut short by illness and death, with a kind of wry and ripe philosophical acceptance that never feels at all pre-emptive or delivered from some fake, posthumous perspective.

Neither actor attempts an impersonation of the figures. Playful and poignant, they take you into the soul of the situation precisely because they are not weighed down by the dictates of verisimilitude.

We see a couple more often separated (he in Yalta for health reasons; she pursuing her career with the Moscow Art Theatre) than together. The letters provided a lifeline, with the twist that Chekhov was also writing (at long distance) roles for Olga in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard . And in a sense he was having to direct her by the remote control of letters, too, because Stanislavsky, who mounted the plays, had a sometimes comically inept sense of what was appropriate.

There are some lovely moments where this production plays on the paradox of the nearness of the performers onstage and the aching distance between the couple in real life. This is particularly touching when Chekhov is giving Olga advice about the way to portray a character. "Keep it light and real" is one of his notes to her. Brook beautifully obeys the spirit of that injunction.