Writer: Ben Brown
Director: Alan Strachan
Director of Filming: Tristan Shepherd
Imagine shaking hands with one of the men responsible for the destruction of your people in the midst of the worst genocide in European history. That dilemma faces World Jewish Congress representative Norbert Masur when he is invited to Sweden in the dying days of the Second World War to meet Henrich Himmler. Ben Brown’s play, The End of the Night, dramatizes that encounter, filmed on stage at the Park Theatre and available for streaming by Original Theatre, and it asks under what circumstances an enemy could become an ally?
At the home of Dr Felix Kersten an important encounter will take place in the middle of the night between two men who must never be known to have met. The arrival of Himmler brings great uncertainty for all concerned, unsure what a senior German official could have to say. But with Hitler holed-up in his bunker, the Russians advancing and Jewish lives at sake, there is everything to play for.
Running at just 80-minutes, Brown’s is a very talky drama that, by necessity, requires a great deal of exposition to make sense of the context of the war at this stage and quite why Himmler is ready to negotiate. By extension, very little happens other than discussions and explanation, so while Brown creates the atmosphere of a crumbling regime and the shifts of power that make more nuanced political negotiation possible, on screen The End of the Night lacks the fizzing tension of equivalent dramas such as Loring Mandel’s recreation of the Wannsee Conference in Conspiracy or the high stakes anguish of J.T. Roger’s Oslo.
Usual for stories about Germany at this time, Brown is fascinated by his subject, and it is Himmler who leaps fully formed from the page rather than the other characters, and the longest conversation in the play is devoted to the Nazi leader’s private exchange with Dr Kersten as he thinks aloud through his options and the possible cost. This is the meat of the play and the point at which this Original Theatre production truly comes alive. Directed by Alan Strachan, the intimate back and forth between the men is gripping as Director of Filming Tristan Shepherd keeps the camera trained on their faces reflecting Himmler’s inner workings.
This production feels less successful elsewhere, even a tad stagey on screen as the other characters, including housekeeper Elisabeth go through the motions of explaining why they are there and circling around each other just for something to do before the guest of honour arrives. Shepherd also uses a very old-fashioned device to obscure the face of the new arrival, showing his torso and back in order to create suspense, but it eventually feels overly affected because Himmler is not instantly recognisable when Shepherd eventually cuts to his face.
Richard Clothier has the most complex character in Himmler to whom he brings a distinct and meditative gravitas. This is not a soldier who reacts quickly and violently as his cultural counterparts do but cares that others see his reasonable side. Still, he emits danger, the possibility of wielding the power he knows he holds but Clothier gives him a touch of human vulnerability.
There is far less substances to the other characters; Michael Lumsden’s doctor, able to charm both sides, although his own agenda is unclear: housekeeper Elisabeth (Audrey Palmer) who is there to be anxious and bring tea, and particularly Ben Caplan’s Mauser whose suspicions of Himmler’s motives largely retreat into resentment: losing the play’s main opportunity to properly explore this extraordinary meeting from the World Jewish Congress perspective. With interesting moments of intensity, Original Theatre’s The End of the Night keeps you watching but it leaves you wanting so much more.