Southwark Playhouse, London – 13 April 2019
Ideological hostilities across the world, fake news and paranoia, a resurgent deep left, uneasy relations with Russia, antisemites questioning the patriotism of Jews: no bad time to revive James Phillips’ powerful play. It is based on the 1950s trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing details of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union. Revulsion at McCarthyism and the electric chair provoked decades of liberal rage and campaigns to prove their innocence: still later, records revealed that they probably were indeed doing it.
With little changed but names, Phillips creates a play in the spirit of Arthur Miller: about belief and betrayal, idealism and vanity, family shame and pride. With deft timeshifts it is set half in their time, half in the 1960s where the couple’s son falls for his cousin, daughter of the uncle whose evidence betrayed them. Sometimes they are onstage together, the four elders like ghosts; sometimes round a very significant table. As Joe Harmston’s long, careful production swings into its second act, you can hardly breathe for tension and pity.
But it takes time. I must be honest and say that the first half didn’t engage me fast enough. Henry Proffit, long and lean and scholarly, is a marvellous Jakob, every generation’s dangerous academic idealist; his passion is reflected back to him in Ruby Bentall’s fragile romantic Esther, forever singing snatches of opera because it “makes working people big inside”, while her bluff brother complains that it is bourgeois and Italian a “fascist language”. But in that first act the growing relationship of the young people drags a bit, and it is only after the interval that we get an electric, eloquent, Milleresque piece I would kick myself to have missed.
Never mind. When Stephen Billington as the FBI agent Cranmer engages with Jakob then Esther, pity and terror crackle as violently as Matthew Bugg’s menacing soundscape. Cranmer says his war service was against “the enemies of my country”; Jakob, excused the draft on health grounds, only wanted to “fight Fascists”. It’s a telling distinction: the Soviets after all were allies. Deeper division is philosophical and practical: trying to persuade them to make a deal and talk Cranmer cites Stalin’s murders while Jakob refuses to believe it.
To Esther’s proud “we have courage because of our convictions” Cranmer cries “you are dying for a lie…you will orphan your son for an idea!”. Jakob piously returns “Ideas are more important…I can’t deny the man I have spent my life trying to become”. With ten days to go before execution, Esther’s operatic preoccupation makes her sing ‘Un bel di’ from Madam Butterfly and vaunt her “pure hope” to the interrogator; the FBI agent exasperatedly begs “don’t wait for the white ship in the harbour, Esther!”
Echoes of Antigone, of Joan of Arc of the perilous streak of vanity in martyrdom. It is reflected again as 25 years later when Katie Eldred as the niece confronts her father with a half-hearted suicide attempt. Phillips is grimly aware of every irony: when Jakob (more scared than his wife) shudders about the inhumane horror of his coming death, we sharply remember his insouciant blindness about Stalin. The coda, with a final physical reveal and a still more ironic decision by Dario Coates as the son Matthew, leaves you reeling.
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to 13 april