Review: The End of the Night, Park Theatre ★★★★★

by Chris Dobson

For a play set seventy-seven years ago, The End of the Night feels intensely topical and necessary. The play depicts a meeting between Swedish Jew Norbert Masur (Ben Caplan) and Heinrich Himmler (Richard Clothier), the architect of the Holocaust. The two men have been brought together by Felix Kersten (Michael Lumsden), Himmler’s physiotherapist, in a house seventy kilometres north of Berlin.

This secret meeting genuinely took place in April 1945, just a few days before Adolf Hitler’s suicide. Masur has come to negotiate for the release of the thousands of Jewish prisoners still held in German concentration camps. Himmler is reluctant to disobey Hitler’s orders that no Jew should outlast the Third Reich – and besides, why should Himmler care about the lives of Jews, whom he regards as the enemies of Germany?

The End of the Night at Park Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet

One of the most striking aspects of The End of the Night is its humour. In one scene, Himmler – dressed in his SS uniform – asks Masur: “Would you like a pastry?” “No thank you,” Masur politely replies. Indeed, food is a motif throughout the play, with tea and pastries set against a backdrop of bomb blasts and fascistic speeches. This bizarre juxtaposition is heightened by the welcome decision to have the actors speak in prim British accents, which casts a light on the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it.

Richard Clothier’s depiction of the mass murdering Reichsführer-SS as deluded but affable does not diminish the atrocities Himmler was responsible for; rather, it uncomfortably reminds the audience of everyone’s capacity for evil, regardless of if their back hurts or their pastries preferences.

The End of the Night at Park Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet
Michael Pavelka’s set feels intimate, with beautiful lighting and sound design by Jason Taylor and Gregory Clarke. One drawback of historically accurate theatre is that it risks sidelining female perspectives, and indeed for much of the play the only female character is Elisabeth Lube (Audrey Palmer), who provides the men with refreshments. Writer Ben Brown seems aware of this limitation, and the inclusion of Olivia Bernstone as Jeanne Bommezjin at the end of the play usefully provides the perspective of a female inmate of a Nazi concentration camp.

All of the performances are compelling, but Richard Clothier deserves especial praise for bringing an astonishing nuance to Himmler, a role few actors would envy playing. Masur’s confrontation with Himmler clearly establishes the barbarity of the Nazi worldview, but it is through the conversations between Himmler and his physiotherapist that we gain an insight into how the Reichsführer views himself: Not as a bad person, but as a selfless defender of German values.

The End of the Night at Park Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet

At a time when a major European power is invading its neighbour in the name of supposed self-defence, the absurdity of Himmler’s self-delusion is comical but also chilling. Alan Strachan should also be commended for directing a play that manages to be both gripping and markedly slow. For eighty minutes, a cast of five speak in one room, then the curtain comes down. It is theatre at its finest.

The End of the Night is at the Park Theatre until 28 May

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature. You can find him on Twitter: @EngLitWriter.