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Harriet Walter in new play inspired by Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time - Brighton Fringe 2014 review by Sarah Agnew

Harriet Walter in New Play, Company: MOOT - music of our time
Venue: St Nicholas Church, Category: Theatre
9 May 19:30 £15 (£12) [2hrs] Plus booking fee

It was the final movement where the violin takes centre stage playing such high notes that the violin itself seems to cry, as it soars ever higher towards celestial heights that really struck me.  In particular it was how this climaxes in a note that seems to trail off into infinity, marking the end of the Quartet for the End of Time, it is truly sensational.  After hearing this piece for the first time a few years ago I found out that Messiaen had composed this in a prisoner of war camp, which makes sense.   Messiaen had turned his harrowing experience into an enduring work of art.  Performed for the first time at Gorlitz POW camp in Silesia Messiaen is reported to have said, 'Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.' The impact was so immediate, it resulted in his release from captivity.

With such a back story, a play inspired by this composition sounded interesting, especially in the setting of the ancient church of St Nicholas and performed by two distinguished actors, husband and wife Guy Paul and Harriet Walter.

In A Walk Through the End of Time, Harriet and Guy play an estranged couple who meet after a period of about 25 years to open old wounds of heart break and loss.  Harriet has invited her ex to go to a Messiaen concert and wants to explain why she had left him after they attended Quartet for the End of Time all those years ago.  In the background the musicians are warming up, allowing them to keep reverting back to the piece of music and its significance to them.

The themes of the play revolve around notions of freedom, time and love, mirroring the themes in Quartet for the End of Time.  Written by Jessica Duchen, this is her first play and it shows such a depth of comprehension of Messiaen's story and the composition that the play has a maturity and a well considered feel to it.  The dialogue flows and sounds convincing keeping the audience moving along with them.  Although it was called a read through, it was a performance in the sense that the story came to life.  Does freedom come from within? If we free ourselves, can we give love unreservedly?  These were a couple of questions the play considered.  The pace remained steady throughout with the ending promising hope, but there was no soaring to celestial heights, no trailing off into infinity.  Jessica Duchen is an inspirational writer and this is an engaging and thought provoking piece, I just wonder what she would do if the ending could mirror that of Quartet for the End of Time.

The second half gave us the chance to enjoy Messiaen's composition, performed by The Ether Quartet. Mandhira de Saram played the violin, Steve Dummer on clarinet, Michelle So on violoncello and the artistic director for the evening Norman Jacobs on piano.   Outside muffled by the walls of St Nicholas a couple of drunks were having an altercation.  Inside surrounded by hundreds of years of religious iconography the eight movements conceived by Olivier Messiaen were performed. 1. Liturgy of crystal, 2. Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time, 3. Abyss of the birds, 4. Interlude, 5. Praise to the eternity of Jesus, 6. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets, 7. Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Time, 8. Praise to the immortality of Jesus.  The mingled sounds from outside with those from within seemed a timely reminder of the harsh reality of where the music had been composed.

A sensational ending is nothing without the build up to create the final impact.  The music was well executed as it delivered the powerful ending that this piece promises every time it is performed.  I felt privileged to hear both the composition and such an interesting play alongside each other in such an evocative setting.  All of the above comes highly recommended.

Sarah Agnew - follow on Twitter @IrishAggers

St Nicholas church, Brighton

St Nicholas church, Brighton

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