Jessica Duchen: How I put the tale of music in a Nazi camp on the stage

The Independent's writer on her play about the Messiaen Quartet

I still can't believe this, but my play A Walk Through the End of Time is being performed at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, starring Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter. An estranged couple meet for the first time in years to attend Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Discussing the personalities behind the music, they are really discussing themselves. It sounds simple, but it is the tip of a rather weirdly shaped iceberg.

In 2007 I had a call from the violinist Philippe Graffin, artistic director of the Consonances festival in St Nazaire, France. Messiaen's centenary was approaching and meanwhile St Nazaire was opening a new performance space for theatre and music – an arts centre converted from an indestructible former Nazi submarine base. Philippe and colleagues would perform Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time there; he wanted me to write a play that would introduce it.

The venue suited our topic. In 1940, Messiaen, then 32 and serving in the French army, was taken prisoner and transferred to Stalag VIII-A, near Görlitz in Silesia. His fellow prisoners included a violinist, a cellist, and a remarkable clarinettist, Henri Akoka – a Jewish Algerian Communist. For this team Messiaen created the Quartet for the End of Time and in January 1941 they premiered it in freezing conditions for an audience of inmates and their captors.

Messiaen, a devout Catholic, judged it the will of God that they were prisoners. Akoka, though, continually tried to escape. Each pursued freedom according to his belief. Messiaen found his in music – the Quartet. Akoka made a dramatic break for liberty by leaping from the roof of a moving train. This odd couple among musicians remained firm friends all their lives. They got along, Messiaen would say, because they both believed; it didn't matter what they believed in. Messiaen believed in God. Akoka believed in Man.

Their friendship seemed perfect for dramatisation. Snag: we needed a leading role for the great French actress Marie-Christine Barrault – and there were no women in Stalag VIII-A. The drama therefore had to be distanced from the history.

We in Britain often misunderstand the French experience of the war years. Britain was not occupied; France was, and its scars start to throb if you so much as brush against them. In my first draft, our actress was an avenging angel type, investigating the reality versus the myth of Messiaen's Quartet. Soon after his release, the composer won a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire. It had some vacancies, having been forced to fire its Jewish professors. A passing reference to this provoked an outcry from the committee that had to approve my script. I had to start again.

Instead, our heroine is the daughter of a French soldier who had been imprisoned with Messiaen. Her ex-husband is a scientist yet holds a strong religious faith. Her pragmatism mirrors Akoka; his mysticism mirrors Messiaen. Can they resolve their differences as time begins to run out?

A play is a living entity; creating it can feel like trying to pack a furious cat into a carry-cage and sometimes you end up scratched. But maybe I did something right, because St Nazaire's mayor gave me a medal. The ultimate test belongs to the audience at the International Wimbledon Music Festival, which is presenting the play on a Sunday afternoon and the Messiaen Quartet on the Monday evening. Ultimately, if those attending both find that the play gives them extra insight into the music, then it's all worthwhile.

'A Walk Through the End of Time', Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames (020 8940 3633) 18 November 2.30pm. The IWMF runs 10-25 November (wimbledonmusicfestival.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot