‘A timely reminder of the cost of political principles’: THE RUBENSTEIN KISS – Southwark Playhouse ★★★★

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Southwark Playhouse, London – 13 April 2019

Public and private lives intertwine in James PhillipsThe Rubenstein Kiss, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2005. Phillips was apparently inspired to write the award-winning The Rubenstein Kiss (it won both the John Whiting and TMA Best Play awards that year) after seeing a newspaper cutting of the kiss between Ethel and Julius Rosenberg before they went to the electric chair.

The Rosenbergs, lest we forget, were the last people in the USA to be executed for spying, allegedly for passing atomic secrets to the Russians. This was in the early 1950s when the Cold War was at its height, and when the atmosphere had briskly turned from seeing Russia as an ally in defeating Hitler to one of reds under the beds and febrile anti-communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy. Paranoia reigned.

Revived now by the highly respected director Joe Harmston as a timely reminder of the cost of political principles, it sits uneasily in our own time of desperate political uncertainty and turbulence with scares once again rife about Russian western interference.

Phillips however doesn’t dwell so much on political niceties as the domestic and personal fall-out of the Rosenbergs’ (here dubbed Rubenstein) dedication to the communist cause and to the dream of a better, more equal world. (Compare and contrast, if you will, our own nest of spies around that time, the Oxford Burgess/Blunt spy ring and the Portland spy ring.)

As a moral tale as well as a fictionalised historical account, The Rubenstein Kiss owes much to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. There is even a nod towards Miller’s John Proctor’s final ‘conversion’ to a self-imposed moral code in Jakob/Julius’ refusal to ‘confess’ to the FBI agent, Paul Cranmer, desperate to get him to agree to a plea pardon and live.

Switching between the 1950s and the 1980s allows Phillips to develop the contrast between the idealism of the parents with the legacy it has bequeathed to the Rubenstein’s son, Matthew and Anna with whom he has just developed a relationship who is the daughter of the brother-in-law who betrayed his parents. In a perhaps too neat chance meeting, Matthew has met Anna in a gallery gazing at the same photo of `the kiss’.

© Scott Rylander, Sean Rigby (David Girshfeld and Eva-Jane Willis (Rachel, his wife) enjoying sweet times with the committed idealist Jakob (Henry Proffit) and his wife Esther (Ruby Bentall)…

Harmston’s traverse production conjures up both time scales with admirable economy thanks to lighting designer, Mike Robertson’s subtle lighting shifts and designer Sean Cavanagh’s painted backdrops of New York apartment outlines at either side of the stage.

The onus, of course, is on the protagonists and once again, Henry Proffit, who lead the Devil You Know Company in a bleakly apocalyptic version of Macbeth at Peckham’s Bussey Building two years ago provides us with another impassioned portrait.

Sean Rigby (more immediately recognisable as Shaun Evans’ sidekick in the tv Morse prequel crime series, Endeavour) makes a convincingly pliable brother-in-law, David, whilst Eva-Jane Willis as Rachel, his wife, and Ruby Bentall (who bears an uncanny likeness to Ethel Rosenberg) provide thoughtful portrayals of loving wives caught in an historical moment.

© Scott Rylander, Dario Coates as Matthew Rubenstein beginning to trace the legacy of his parents with Anna (Katie Eldred), with whom he’s just started a relationship and who is the daughter of the man (and brother-in-law) who `betrayed’ his parents.

Katie Eldred and Dario Coates play the two young lovers, bombarded by the past, trying to discover the truth of their inheritance with admirable fervour and perplexity.

All in all, Harmston’s production brings Phillips’s extraordinary empathy with his subject to a tender and sensitive conclusion whilst weighing up the noble aspirations of idealism with its harsh legacies for those who inherit them.

The Rubenstein Kiss
By James Phillips

Cast:

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 Proffit
Rachel Liebermann: Eva-Jane Willis

Director: Joe Harmston
Designer: Sean Cavanagh
Lighting Design: Mike Robertson
Sound Designer: Matthew Bugg
Costume Designer/Supervisor: Cecilia Trono
Associate Director: Anthony Houghon
Casting Director: Kate Plantin CDG
Lighting Assistant: Holly Ellis
Dialect Coach: Charmian Hoare

Presented by Devil You Know Theatre Company

First perf of this production of The Rubenstein Kiss at Southwark Playhouse, Mar 14, 2019. Runs to April 13, 2019.

The Rubenstein Kiss was first staged at Hampstead Theatre, London, Nov 2005.

Review published on this site, March 25, 2019

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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to other websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and now blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to other websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and now blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.

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