Steven Pinder On ...The Diary of Anne FrankDate: 27 February 2012Steven 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 Anneís diary of real events. Did you do much research?
I donít usually do much research, as certain plays speak for themselves, but I did a lot for this part, because Iím 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, whoís 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 itís chilling to hear Hitlerís voice on the radio. Some of what we learnt was a real eye-opener. I didnít 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. Anneís 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. Iíve seen pictures of him. He doesnít look anything like me and I didnít 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 itís an open canvas.
It isnít like playing Michelangelo or Maggie Thatcher. Youíre 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?
Itís difficult to set aside whatís looming. Itís a bit like watching Titanic. You know that, whatever happens, the shipís going to sink, but you donít know exactly how itís 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 itís 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?
Theyíve been highly complementary. Thereís quite a lot of silence. Thereís a lot of listening going on which is always a good sign and they are obviously following the story. Itís one of those sets where you have to work very hard because itís very open. The sound goes off into the wings and weíre all very conscious that this isnít 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 youíre there, your imagination has to keep ticking over because, as soon as that stops, the audienceís imagination will stop as well. The Nazi officer is there all the time. Even though he isnít actually in the annex with them, heís 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 itís on the school reading schedule then it will certainly enrich the students to come and see it but, really, what I donít 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, itís 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 werenít very good, but I would certainly recommend this play just to see the actual production.
Itís thoroughly enjoyable being on the set, as well as hard work sometimes, because you donít do a lot of running around. Also, it doesnít rely on one or two actors. The animal of the piece is that itís 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. Itís a relatively short play, but it provides enough time to create this image.
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