THE RUBENSTEIN KISS
By James Phillips.
Southwark Playhouse, the Large,77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD to 13 April 2019.
Mon- Sat 7.30pm Mat Tues & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 30 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234
Review: William Russell 20 March.
A tale of treachery, espionage and love
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair in 1953. It was the height of the Cold War and America was paranoid about the Communist threat, and Senator McCarthy was rousing passions throughout the land. John Phillips’ play about Jakob and Esther Rubenstein is a fictionalised account of the Rosenberg affair. Cleverly staged traverse fashion on a virtually bare stage with only a table and a few chairs for props it moves seamlessly through time as we meet two young people at an exhibition where they see the famous photograph of the two spies reunited in a police van as they were being taken to be executed embracing. They are, it turns out, the Rubenstein’s son Matthew, a lawyer,and their niece Anna who are both fascinated by the past of their respective parents and in his case campaigning to prove Jacob and Esther were wrongly executed – as in real life the two Rosenberg sons did. Their story is intermingled with that of the Rubensteins, her brother David and his wife Rachel, the change of time being neatly done by the way everyone dresses. America was infested then with Soviet sympathisers sending information back to Moscow, although it is questionable whether the Rosenbergs actually sent anything to the Kremlin it did not already know and doubts have always persisted over just how far Ethel was involved in what her husband, an idealist doing what he believed to be right, was up to. She at least might just have been innocent.
The play works beautifully, the performances are good and it is as relevant as ever in the age of Wikkileaks and fake news when fears of what Russia is up to are widespread.
Dario Coates makes a splendidly impassioned Matthew, four when his parents went to the electric chair – he was playing baseball in the yard with a social worker – who refuses to accept that the testimony which convicted them was true, conveying all the mixed emotions of a man with a mission. As Jakob Rubenstein Henry Profit creates a man who may have betrayed secrets but by his own lights was a man of principle perfectly, while Ruby Bentall as Esther, devoted to operatic arias and to Jakob manages to be almost inscrutable – maybe she co-operated, maybe she was just a loving wife. As her brother, who did co-operate with the FBI Sean Rigby creates a none too clever man who saw what the atomic bomb tests were like but who, having done what Jakob wanted, saves his own life by co-operating with the prosecution even if it means sending his sister to her death. Their scenes with the FBI agent cross examining them and trying to get them to name names, played with an ice cold edge by Stephen Billington, are spellbinding. This revival is both timely and powerful – and whatever the real spies deserved it was surely not the electric chair.
Esther Rubenstein: Ruby Bentall.
FBI Agent Paul Cranmer: Stephen Billington.
Matthew Rubenstein: Dario Coates.
Anna Levi: Katie Eldred.
David Girshfeld: Sean Rigby.
Jakob Rubenstein: Henry Profit.
Rachel Liebermann: Eva-Jane Willis.
Director: Joe Harmston.
Designer: Sean Cavanagh.
Lighting Design: Mike Robertson.
Sound Designer: Matthew Bugg.
Costume Designer: Cecilia Trono.
Dialect Coach: Charmian Hoare.
Production Photography: Scott Rylander.