Southwark Playhouse, London – 13 April 2019
There couldn’t be a better time to revisit James Phillips’ 2006 debut play The Rubenstein Kiss and its story of idealism, especially in the current climate of global and national uncertainty, anti-Semitism and zealotry.
It is still a riveting, thought-provoking drama even though this fictional look at the Rosenberg spy controversy has arguably been overtaken by real life. Twelve years ago popular thinking erred on the side of innocence or, at the very least, that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were given an unduly harsh sentence – the electric chair – for selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during World War Two.
But, since Phillips used the case as the inspiration for his play, the world has turned, top secret FBI and court documents have been released and the devoted couple have been denounced for their part in the arms race.
The facts, however, don’t deter from this fascinating and haunting story which demonstrates how far individuals are prepared to go for the greater good. As we now face a precarious future amid Brexit, political and religious prejudice, racism, Communist paranoia and a gung-ho US president, The Rubenstein Kiss epitomises the threat we all face from a single person’s convictions.
Joe Harmston’s absorbing production keeps the set to a bare minimum to concentrate on the characters playing out this Cold War drama which touches on McCarthyism, the Salem witch hunts and anti-Socialist hysteria.
It opens in the 1970s, in an art gallery, where young law student, Matthew, is chatted up by history teacher, Anna, in front of an iconic 1950s photo.
The Rubenstein Kiss is a press photo taken of, in this case, Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, in the back of a police van as the couple were being taken to a courthouse where they were on trial for their lives. Through flashback, the story follows the young couple, who have a personal interest in the case, as they campaign for a pardon for the Rubensteins, and takes the audience back to the 1940s and ’50s when their alleged crime took place.
Jakob, an engineer, is an idealist and former member of the Communist Party, committed to fighting for the end of undeserved privilege. “If you do enough, things can get better,” he tells his brother-in-law, David.
David’s sister, Jakob’s wife Esther, was once a militant unionist and backs her husband unconditionally.
One night David, who worked on the Manhattan Project, perfecting the atomic bomb, brings his fiancee, Rachel, around to the Rubenstein’s for dinner and reveals what had just happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Rubensteins begin to live in the shadows and Phillips sketches out just enough of their lives to make you question the couple’s motives and beliefs.
There are one or two moments when Harmston takes his foot of the pedal and the tension drops thanks to one too many arguments at the kitchen table.
There is at least 20 minutes that could be cut from the play’s running time of 150 minutes to tighten the narrative.
But Ruby Bentall gives a blistering performances as Esther, both as a supportive wife and imprisoned spy. She’s courageous, brave and defiant with Bentall delivering and equally bold and fervid turn.
Henry Proffit as Jakob is similarly impressive while Dario Coates, excels as their son, Matthew, who burns with rage throughout at the injustice meted out to the couple.
And it is hard not to have some sympathy for poor David (a terrifically well-paced performance by Sean Rigby) who comes to be haunted by the consequences of his actions.
Terrific performances all around in this deeply compelling story.
The Rubenstein Kiss plays at Southwark Playhouse until April 13.
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