“First there’s the mess, then there’s the Messiaen”
The frustration of the Barnes to Richmond rail replacement bus service (over an hour on this sunny Sunday afternoon) paled into insignificance on reading the background to this rehearsed reading at the Orange Tree. Jessica Duchen’s play A Walk Through the End of Time features an estranged couple who are reunited after 25 years as they prepare to attend a concert performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a piece of music composed by French composer Olivier Messiaen whilst he was held as a prisoner-of-war in the early years of the Second World War. Its unusual make-up, of clarinet, violin, cello and piano, simply reflected the musical ability of his fellow prisoners and its first performance was in 1941 at the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII-A.
Duchen’s couple – a woman whose father was imprisoned with Messaien (Harriet Walter) and her scientist ex-husband (Henry Goodman) – leaf through their programmes and discuss the music, the man who wrote it and the men he wrote it for and the terrible circumstances in which it was written. But in doing so, they discuss their own personal history, what happened to them in the past and what has taken place since then, and the reasons why – gods of science are pitted against gods of faith as they try to resolve their differing takes on the world in the hope of finding something together in their future.
As a rehearsed reading, I’m not going to pass too much comment, aside from to say it was perfect casting – Walter could read anything and make it sound utterly lived in and heartfelt and Goodman’s kindly wise energy matched up perfectly – and it was interesting to see how differently they’d treated their scripts. Goodman’s was covered in scribbles, underlinings and highlighted lines whereas Walter’s was much neater with all her markings tidily inscribed on the pages.
And the play itself shows much promise, weaving together elements of scientific and musical theory with history and fiction into a sinuously interesting piece of work. Designed to introduce a performance of The Quartet for the End of Time (and one will take place tomorrow), it features snippets of the music wafting into the couple’s conversation as the musicians rehearse next door, which offers countless springboards for the dialogue to explore the story and detail behind each movement. It also means that the drama is a little constricted by it too: Duchen’s text doesn’t always have the natural flow of human interaction as it works its way through the undoubtedly fascinating history, though the potential is here for something that is highly affecting as well as illuminating.