Ta Main dans la Mienne, Pit, Barbican, London

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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 a cause for celebration. This time he arrives with a piece that is at the opposite extreme from the theatrical pyrotechnics and epic reach of his nine-hour version of the Hindu Mahabharata. A simply, yet very subtly, staged two-person show - derived from the correspondence between 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, moving experience.

A visiting production by Peter Brook, the great English director who has long been based in Paris, is always a cause for celebration. This time he arrives with a piece that is at the opposite extreme from the theatrical pyrotechnics and epic reach of his nine-hour version of the Hindu Mahabharata. A simply, yet very subtly, staged two-person show - derived from the correspondence between 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, 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, six years after meeting Knipper) coughing up blood, and the two of them fiddling with pens and stationery, and 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 on a rectangle of carpet 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.

The fact that they have reached an age way beyond that ever attained by Chekhov bathes the story of this love, cut short by illness and premature death, with a kind of wry and ripe philosophical acceptance that never feels pre-emptive or bestowed on us from some fake, posthumous perspective. Neither Piccoli, with his lovely benign, open face, or Parry, with her distinguished beauty and vulnerability, attempt an impersonation of the historical figures they are representing. At once playful and poignant, they take you into the soul of the situation precisely because they are not weighed down by the dictates of dull 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) great roles for Olga in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. There are some very affecting 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 advises Olga about the way to portray a character. So near and yet so far becomes - briefly - so far and yet so near.

The actors behave to one another with an uncloying graciousness and the piece is imbued with the amused tolerance of Chekhovian humour. The piece is edited so that, like the poor lovers, it is always moving swiftly on. "Keep it light and real" was one the dramatist's acting notes to Olga. Brook beautifully obeys the spirit of that injunction.

To 12 February (0845 120 7550)

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