Ta Main Dans La Mienne (I Take Your Hand in Mine)
Carol Rocamora, adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from correspondence between Olga Knipper and Anton Chekhov
Perhaps our greatest theatre director, Peter Brook's 80th birthday present to the world is a fascinating insight into the world of playwright Anton Chekhov, his German wife actress Olga Knipper and, as a bonus, of the Moscow Arts Theatre under Constantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Their lives are seen through the prism of 412 letters sent in one direction and nearly as many in the other.
The couple first met when the actress was appearing in The Seagull. This is perhaps a typical story of a doomed older man, the 38 year-old Chekhov falling for a beautiful (29 year-old) actress. However, there is little else about their love and the six years that they had "together" that would fit into a Hollywood screenplay.
Like the recent stage version of Primo Levi's If This is a Man, Primo starring Sir Anthony Sher, Ta Main Dans La Mienne not only brings a seemingly untheatrical subject to the stage but also manages to hold the attention effortlessly, at least in part thanks to two superb performances.
Strangely perhaps, Brook has chosen to cast actors a generation and then some older than their subjects, his wife Natasha Parry and veteran actor, Michel Piccoli. It is no coincidence that he worked with both of them on an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, the play that perhaps gives a clue as to how Chekhov viewed an old age that he was never to experience.
When Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper met in 1898 and were instantly attracted to each other, the man already acknowledged as a master of his art was already suffering from consumption. However, they still manage to find happiness, although it took two years for them to commence an affair, possibly partly because he was already engaged.
Marriage followed a few months later but within three years, during which, despite writer's block and a desire for distraction, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard were written, he was dead.
The reason that the play is able to work so well is that the couple spent most of their time separated, partly because Chekhov's illness meant that he had to spend the long Russian winters at a dacha in Yalta. Even when he could go to the city, the punishing life of a touring actress would often deprive him of the company of his love.
For those in love with theatre, this is all particularly fascinating as, after their marriage, Miss Knipper was used as a go-between who would convey the often frustrated playwright's instructions to his director. In particular, it was she that had to explain to Stanislavsky that The Cherry Orchard was not the sublime tragedy that he was interpreting but a comedy!
Ta Main Dans La Mienne is an ironic title since the hands were so often apart but the play is touching and contains gentle humour. It also portrays two fascinating people in a wonderful period for theatre in their country.
A Brook production in London is always a treat. This one is no exception.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher