A Walk Through the End of Time, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, November 2012

In Summer 1940 as a member of the French forces, Olivier Messiaen became a POW at Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. The future looked extremely bleak and he composed Quartet for the End of Time, performed by himself and three fellow prisoners in January 1941. “Never have I been listened to with so much attention and understanding”, he later recalled.

The circumstances of composition dictated the instruments: piano, violin, cello and clarinet, with the piano played by Messiaen, and the clarinet by Henri Akoka, both of whom are background characters in this two-hander by Jessica Duchen. She originally wrote it for the opening of a new performance space at St. Nazaire in France to celebrate the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, and as a prelude to the quartet. Here at the Orange Tree in Richmond it was followed by a brief presentation and question and answer session by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Bergen-Belsen.

Harriet Walters and Henry Goodman

Ms. Duchen’s play was performed in a ‘rehearsed reading’ by Henry Goodman and Harriet Walters, who brought their characters beautifully to life. She the daughter of a man who was imprisoned with Messiaen, he a scientist with a strong religious faith, meeting again before a concert of the quartet, having not seen one another since their divorce twenty-five years ago. At that time she glimpsed the possibility of something different from the spiritual journey he was making, and left him, “I needed more” she said. “Because your father did so much more than we ever could”, came the response. A good point perhaps, but they were far apart in a way illuminated by his admiration for Messiaen’s religious beliefs, “Messiaen believed in God”. “And my father believed in man. Like me!”

He is Messiaen, she Akoka, a spirited and witty musician with a great sense of humour and an ability to hang on to his own clarinet through thick and thin. After leaving Stalag VIII-A and being transported by cattle truck on suspicion of being Jewish, which he was, he escaped through the roof and jumped from the moving train, clarinet in hand.

Should we applaud Akoka’s pragmatism, or Messiaen’s religiosity? Both are valid but music transcends them, and as she says about the quartet, “I had a longing for an emotion I knew must exist because it’s in the music”. At this point a performance of the quartet would be perfect, but the play stands on its own and should be performed more often. At one hour long it is only slightly shorter than another two-hander currently winning four star reviews in the West End, but it is far deeper and far more compelling. Let us hope this ‘rehearsed reading’ is the prelude to something further.

For details about the background to Ms. Duchen’s play see her article in The Independent.

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