Book that inspired the dying Mitterrand is to be staged

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The Independent Online
INTIMATE DEATH, the book which inspired Francois Mitterrand to believe that dying could be "an accomplishment", is being adapted for the London stage in a production intended as "a lesson for the living".

The author, Marie de Hennezel, a French psychologist who works with the terminally ill in the first palliative care unit at a Paris hospital, is co-operating with the adaptation of her best-selling diary. The production has the full backing of Peter Brook, the distinguished British theatre director who is based in Paris.

Death might at first seem a strange choice of subject for someone whose aim is to be "as life-enhancing to as many people as possible", but Mick Gordon, the new artistic director at the Gate Theatre, in west London, knew, from the moment he first read Intimate Death, that he must translate it onto the stage.

"To me, it's the most important piece of work I've ever done and I'm sure I'll be working on it for the rest of my life," he said. "It is a very loving acknowledgment that one of the things that happens to us all is death. It can teach you to be a better human being and I want to share that feeling."

Mr Gordon went to Paris and met Ms de Hennezel, who agreed to his idea of staging the book. Like many of the people who feel moved to contact the gifted psychologist after reading her work, Mr Gordon is, at 28, young. It was one particular phrase - "You mustn't start dying before death comes" - uttered by Ms de Hennezel at the bedside of President Mitterrand when he was suffering from terminal cancer, which struck a chord with him.

President Mitterrand was a friend and staunch supporter of Ms de Hennezel in the 12 years before his own death. He visited the palliative care unit where she endeavours to do for others what she could not do for her father who committed suicide - be present during the final moments.

After President Mitterrand's operation for prostate cancer in 1992, he called Ms de Hennezel to his bedside. In the ensuing three years running up to his death, the pair spent an increasing amount of time together. By way of thanks for their dialogue about dying, President Mitterrand agreed to write the foreword to Intimate Death. The book's "most beautiful lesson", he wrote, is that "death can cause a human being to become what he or she was called to become; it can be, in the fullest sense of the word, an accomplishment."

Now Intimate Death, which has been translated into 15 languages and was published in paperback in Britain this summer, is to become a play. After seven weeks of rehearsals at the National Theatre Studio, Mr Gordon invited Ms de Hennezel to come to Britain and watch the actors at work.

"All of a sudden, the pretence of it and the reality of it came together," Mr Gordon said. "She's very conscious of touch, and pointed out details like how to hold a patient's hand. The work is all to do with being there for that person, allowing them to take responsibility for their decisions. The acting took on a measure of precision which was incredibly important and delicate."

Shortly afterwards, Mr Gordon invited an audience of 70 staff from hospices and palliative care units to view the work-in-progress. "It had a profound effect," he said. "People didn't go home. They stayed and talked for a long time. I saw the possibility of achieving what Marie achieved in her book, which is a general arena of sharing. The thing we were most proud of was that nobody was destroyed by it. People were in tears, but they were strong."

It was only when Mr Gordon read Intimate Death that he realised how terrified he was of dying. However, working on the play has reduced that fear "considerably" and he hopes the same will be true for his audience at the Gate Theatre in January. The play will run for two weeks and numbers will be limited to 50 people per night to ensure an appropriately "intimate" atmosphere.

Seventy-five minutes of reflection on death may sound quite enough, but the audiences who have so far sampled the production have suggested that it should be longer. "When you're dealing with this subject your sense of time changes," said Mr Gordon. "You stop rushing and you begin to dwell. It's not about more material, but more dwelling time."