Steven Pinder is appearing in The Diary of Anne Frank, directed by Nikolai Foster, at York Theatre Royal until 3 March, followed by a national tour. He plays Hermann van Daan, one of the German Jews who hid from Nazi persecution in the Annex in Amsterdam for almost two years during World War II. With a long, varied career on stage and screen, including playing Max Farnham in Brookside, Steven spoke to Sue Casson about his current role.

This play is set in Amsterdam in 1942-44, based on the teenage Anne’s diary of real events. Did you do much research?

I don’t usually do much research, as certain plays speak for themselves, but I did a lot for this part, because I’m very interested in the Second World War. When you think of Holland during that period, you always think of Anne Frank, and luckily the cast had the chance to meet Anna, who’s worked at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. She had a lot of knowledge about the annex and also about the situation in Amsterdam at the time.

The outside world is brought into the play and it’s chilling to hear Hitler’s voice on the radio. Some of what we learnt was a real eye-opener. I didn’t realize how many Dutch Jews were deported during the war. It was one of the biggest tragedies of Holland at the time because, out of about 140,000 Jews living in Holland, about 100,000 were murdered. Anne’s father, Otto Frank (played by Christopher Timothy), was very much in the minority as he survived not only the annex but also Auschwitz. It must have been very harrowing.

How did you approach this role?

The strange thing about Hermann van Dann is that he was real. He existed. I’ve seen pictures of him. He doesn’t look anything like me and I didn’t attempt to look like him. He was quite a prominent sort of chap, quite tall, but not a known figure. He was just an ordinary Jewish chap trying to look after his family, trying to save them, and, of course, inevitably, he failed, so although he was a real person, in a way it’s an open canvas.

It isn’t like playing Michelangelo or Maggie Thatcher. You’re guided by the era and the actual type of person that he must have been. He was simply a German Jew, trying to protect his family in very difficult times.

Most of us are aware of the story of Anne Frank. Do you find it challenging to start the play afresh every evening?

It’s difficult to set aside what’s looming. It’s a bit like watching Titanic. You know that, whatever happens, the ship’s going to sink, but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen. As the play goes on, our role as actors is to involve the audience with these characters and make sure that they have a feel for who they were.

The director, Nikolai Foster, suggested that parts of this play are thriller-esque because these people are hiding from the Nazis, and there are moments of real tension. When you go to see a play about Anne Frank, you know it’s going to be quite sad obviously because you always think of what happened to them, so our job is to create tension and hope. As the van Daan family, we try to bring a little light-relief to the situation, especially at first.

How have audiences been reacting so far?

They’ve been highly complementary. There’s quite a lot of silence. There’s a lot of listening going on which is always a good sign and they are obviously following the story. It’s one of those sets where you have to work very hard because it’s very open. The sound goes off into the wings and we’re all very conscious that this isn’t a box set. All eight actors are on stage throughout, from the beginning. Even when we withdraw from the scene, we sit in sight of the audience in character to increase the sense of claustrophobia.

It requires great concentration more than anything else because, whilst you’re there, your imagination has to keep ticking over because, as soon as that stops, the audience’s imagination will stop as well. The Nazi officer is there all the time. Even though he isn’t actually in the annex with them, he’s brooding in the background, which is very powerful and an ominous reminder to the audience.

Finally, why do you think people should come and see The Diary of Anne Frank?

Obviously, if it’s on the school reading schedule then it will certainly enrich the students to come and see it but, really, what I don’t get to see and can only see from the set itself is the actual production - the set, lighting, music, and effects, not just the rain machine but the pictures that are put in front of you. I think that, for that alone, it’s worth seeing even before you get to the fine performances that are taking place on stage. Sometimes, when you see a play and come out saying that the lighting, costumes, set design and music were lovely, it gives the impression that the actors weren’t very good, but I would certainly recommend this play just to see the actual production.

It’s thoroughly enjoyable being on the set, as well as hard work sometimes, because you don’t do a lot of running around. Also, it doesn’t rely on one or two actors. The animal of the piece is that it’s very much an ensemble and Nikolai has created a sense that the actors are part of that motion, the process of being in the set. Because of the story, the eight of us in the cast join the set at the beginning, stay in it and remain part of it the whole time. It’s a relatively short play, but it provides enough time to create this image.