Dust-sheets cover what little furniture there is in the expansive room of Dr Felix Kersten (Michael Lumsden), trusted personal physiotherapist to Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler (Richard Clothier) of Adof Hitler’s Schutzstaffel; the SS. It perhaps reflects the austerity of the times, though it is clearly part of a grand house that belongs to a man who has negotiated himself a privileged and safe position during World War II, the culmination of which is now just weeks away.
Surprising, fascinating, and chilling
The room appears rarely used, except perhaps for when the massage table is brought in, though it seems likey that Himmler is the only one to lie on it these days; there are only two dining chairs so dinner parties are clearly uncommon. A splendid view of the distant forests is visible through the two central windows with half-raised blinds, while the outer two remain down. Although in the middle of nowhere, prying eyes are always a concern.
But we are in the Park Theatre, and a stagehand enters dressed in Germanic clothes befitting a member of the ground staff and removes the dust sheets in preparation for a tense drama that will tell of an almost unthinkable historical meeting that was shrouded in secrecy. Not even Hitler, least of all Hitler, knew anything about it, and he never would.
A haunting violin strikes up and given the subject matter of this play Schindler’s List immediately springs to mind. Sound designer Gregory Clarke judges the mood perfectly throughout, heightening the tension of an already nerve-wracking encounter. Similarly, the lighting design by Jason Taylor reflects the subtleties of the delicate exchanges and the grim nature of their discussions, even if tinged with hope. It could be the setting for a murder mystery, but it turns out to be a conference room for something desperately more far-reaching than that.
Norbert Masur (Ben Caplan) enters in a light brown overcoat with a briefcase to deliver a prologue that provides his background, before appearing at the front door of Dr Kersten’s house. He is a member of the World Jewish Congress and has flown from Sweden to Berlin and journeyed to the safe haven for this most unlikely meeting that only Kersten could possibly have arranged. Elisabeth Lube (Audrey Palmer) the long-serving housekeeper brings refreshments as she does on many occasions. Palmer gives a delightful portrayal of an ordinary, motherly German caught up in the distress of conflict; she is calm and, under the circumstances, cheerful.
The two men discuss their strategy; the aim is to persuade Himmler to release the last surviving concentration camp prisoners, contrary to Hitler’s orders that no Jew should outlast the regime. It’s a plan riddled with risk for all involved, not least Himmler, who would face certain death if ever anyone were to find out. However, he knows his days and that of the war are numbered, as the Allies march forward and take control of the concentration camps. Himmler stomps into the room in full military dress, complete with knee-length black boots. It’s a nerve-wracking moment, which with Clothier’s height and dominating presence makes for a frightening spectacle. Yet here he is with a lone intermediary face-to-face in a room with a solitary member of the ethnoreligious group of whom he has exterminated millions.
What follows is surprising, fascinating, and chilling. Clothier’s Himmler is full of Nazi dogma, yet remarkably charming, rational and, for the most part, quietly spoken. In the logic and thinking of his world, he makes sound arguments for the inevitability of the war and its necessity for the sake of the German people. He reminds Masur of some unpleasant truths about the attitude of the Allies towards the Jews; of the shipload turned back from the USA by Roosevelt, and the financial demands on would-be immigrants made by the British. He has just left Hitler’s birthday party and as he sees the end nearing he is wracked by issues of loyalty and duty. Above all else, he is trying to secure his own safety, future, and most desperately his reputation and place in history. It’s a moving and disturbing performance. Is this what it would have been like to encounter the humanity of a man guilty of such atrocities?
On the other side of the table, Caplan can be seen biting his tongue, knowing that Masur has only one chance to bring this off and save at least some of his people. With just a few outbursts he remains subservient to Himmler's commanding position, listening attentively to the shifting terms and conditions of the deal. His body language gives us an insight into what it must have been like to be dealing with a man you hate and despise with every ounce of your being. Meanwhile, Lumsden shifts around as the host, trying to keep both sides on track, whilst also trying to ensure that his own future is going to be safeguarded.
The meeting comes to a conclusion with decisions reached and compromises agreed. The play then finishes with a double epilogue to bookend it. Masur makes his observations, as he did at the beginning. Then, when it might all be over, Jeanne Bommezjin (Olivia Bernstone) enters in concentration camp uniform to give an insight from those interred for so many years who now face the prospect of freedom. Bernstone is sincere and moving, but the jury is probably still out on how tidy this ending is, and the extent to which it is needed.
In writing The End of the Night Ben Brown has taken on one of the most difficult and dangerously delicate of subjects. He has also not flinched from creating some spine-chilling moments and presenting with conviction arguments that are rarely heard, along with the associated insight into the German mindset and the extent of the brainwashing. Yet it remains balanced, as the two men opposite Himmler manoeuver around him in attempts to open his mind to another point of view and pander to his own interests. Director Alan Strachan has handled the material in this world premiere with great sensitivity - no doubt knowing how many nerves it might touch - making it necessarily uncomfortable at times, and always compelling.
We may not be at war, but we certainly live in an age of refugees, and this highly focused play resonates beyond the era it's set in, down the ages to where we are today. It is informative, educational, moving, and full of food for thought.