Ben Brown’s new play dramatises the fascinating true story of how SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler is persuaded by the ‘miraculous touch’ of Felix Kersten, the Nazi’s Finnish physiotherapist, to permit the International Red Cross to rescue some three thousand women (about half of them Jewish) from a concentration camp towards the end of WW2, as Russian troops were advancing. However, whilst the real-life premise is utterly intriguing, the play’s single act structure of a pre-dawn meeting between Himmler (Richard Clothier) and Norbert Masur (Ben Caplan), a representative of the World Jewish Congress, facilitated by Kersten (Michael Lumsden) in his country manor, doesn’t realise this true tale’s dramatic potential.
Michael Pavelka’s set and Jason Taylor’s lighting design are detailed and lush in their crepuscular mood and features – yet somehow the bleakness of war-torn Germany and the Holocaust are a little too remote, despite the oohs and ahhs over fresh milk and pastries smuggled from Sweden that feature in the stage business and dialogue.
Lumsden plays Kersten as a jovial pragmatist who seems without angst or self-consciousness in haggling over the number of lives his Nazi patient might spare. Lumsden’s presence is appealing; but it seems Brown has missed an opportunity in exploring the inner world of a man who lays his healing hands on a mass murderer whilst retaining the confidence to ask, persuasively, that any number of human beings might escape death, unlike the other multiple millions of victims, of the Shoah.
Clothier enacts Himmler with a commanding and droll performance filled with physicality and precise timing. Director Alan Strachan, together with Clothier’s fine acting, creates a riveting dilemma for the audience: how can this Nazi be so engaging and magnetic? Indeed, Brown and Strachan locate compelling, and occasionally funny, moments of absurdity: a seemingly cordial Himmler offers Norbert Masur a biscuit shortly after loading his sidearm.
The narrative of self-pity that Clothier’s Himmler relates, without irony, about how he is the one suffering, captures the narcissism and distortion of everyday tyrants and sociopaths. We see Lumsden’s Kersten skilfully flatter the Nazi’s ego in order to save at least some lives. As both a psychological study and resonant satire on modern politics, these dynamics are interesting to observe. However, Himmler’s character is given greater depth and, perversely affords more emotional engagement, than the truly fascinating person of Felix Kersten who is left largely unexplored by the script. Likewise, the courageous Swedish Jew, Norbert Masur, who lost 18 members of his family to Nazi genocide, is given very little attention in the play. The character appears, understandably, frightened and awkward in the presence of an armed Nazi whilst he needs to broker for lives as if they are only the collateral for publicity ambitions, which is exactly as Himmler sees the transaction.
In its denouement, the play breaks the fourth wall and zooms out to a wider historical angle. As Brown is prepared to depart from naturalism for the sake of tone and context, I wish he’d also freed himself from the somewhat talky strictures of a drawing room drama to give us greater insight into the character and motivations of Felix Kersten so that we could see more of him than just a practically-minded host and winning negotiator. The End of the Night hangs on an extraordinary premise but misses the opportunity to take us deeper into the thoughts, feelings and experiences that propelled it.
Review by Mary Beer
In the final days of World War II, a secret meeting takes place between a member of the World Jewish Congress and one of the most powerful Nazis in Germany – without Hitler’s knowledge.
Dr Felix Kersten, Himmler’s trusted personal physiotherapist, uses his unique position of influence to facilitate a meeting between the architect of The Holocaust and Swedish Jew Norbert Masur. A meeting which could turn Himmler’s thoughts away from the downfall of the Third Reich and towards a course of action that could save thousands of lives.
With battle lines crumbling and lives in the balance, the two men must try to find a way to persuade Himmler to release the last surviving concentration camp prisoners contrary to Hitler’s orders that no Jew should outlast the regime.
OLIVIA BERNSTONE I JEANNE BOMMEZJIN
BEN CAPLAN I NORBERT MASUR
RICHARD CLOTHIER I HEINRICH HIMMLER
MICHAEL LUMSDEN I FELIX KERSTEN
AUDREY PALMER I ELISABETH LUBE
WRITER I BEN BROWN
DIRECTOR I ALAN STRACHAN
SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER I MICHAEL PAVELKA
LIGHTING DESIGNER I JASON TAYLOR
SOUND DESIGNER I GREGORY CLARKE
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR I TOM BRAIN
PRODUCTION MANAGER I TAMMY ROSE
PRODUCERS I DANIEL COOPER & TOM HACKNEY
PRODUCTION CO-ORDINATOR I CHARLOTTE HOLDER
COMPANY STAGE MANAGER I LAUREN BARCLAY
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER I JEFFREY HARMER
STAGE MANAGEMENT INTERN I ALEX JAOUEN
Park Theatre and Original Theatre present the World Premiere of
The End of the Night
By Ben Brown
Directed by Alan Strachan
Plays: 27 Apr – 28 May 2022