Private passions and passionate political idealism ricochet down the generations in James Phillips’ gripping drama
James Phillips’ award-winning 2005 play was inspired by the story behind the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953 for allegedly providing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Esther and Jakob Rubenstein are the fictional Jewish couple, whose similar fate is a given, in a play that looks forward to the implications for future generations of their idealism, their actions and their destiny.
Phillips’ eye-opener is to interweave two different time periods. In the 1940s and 50s the Rubensteins’ story reaches its climax; in the 70s the action focuses on a new generation just as they reach the age at which the Rubensteins were sharing their meeting of minds.
The play begins in 1970 in a gallery dominated by an image of the eponymous kiss of the condemned couple (based on an iconic real-life image), handcuffed together in a police van. On designer Sean Cavanagh’s intimate traverse stage, the image itself is left to audience imagination, and the gaze of two 20-something visitors, whose shared obsession with what they see leads to mutual attraction. Matthew (Dario Coates) is a law intern, Anna (Katie Eldred) is a history teacher. This could be schematic, the perfect team for a forensic investigation of the facts. Here, thanks to two powerful performances (and a twist in Phillips’ tale that audiences might guess, though it’s not for me to give away), the fiercely intelligent, assertive young woman and the passionate, driven young man take the audience with them on an intensely personal journey of discovery about the case – and each other.
In Joe Harmston’s detailed production, at once sensitive and graphic, the transition to the earlier era is elegantly achieved. This is also thanks to Mike Robertson’s carefully selective lighting and to the accompaniment of the electrical snaps and crackles of Matthew Bugg’s eerie soundscape. His grisly earworms are reminders of the shared end for which the Rubensteins are destined, as they finally get to take centre stage. Cavanagh’s set is bookended by the iron fire escapes and landings of New York tenements, also chillingly reminiscent of the iron attachments of the electric chair.
But that is all to come. The white heat of conviction, with which Henry Proffit’s intense, idealistic Jakob burns, is forged in the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe, the threat of the nuclear race after the Korean War and the promises held out by Communism to a generation of impoverished immigrants after the Wall Street Crash and the Depression. Ruby Bentall’s vibrant Esther, eyes shining with love and excitement, wants to share it all: the passion for the cause, their love for each other, the fatally dangerous atomic secrets Jakob leaks to the Soviet Union. With a fine sense of the dramatic, she loves to sing her favourite operatic arias around the apartment as she lays a table, or makes a dress for her new sister-in-law. So the couple play the leads in their own tragedy, their doomed trajectory a Liebestod (consummation of love in death) worthy of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde; though it is actually Puccini’s aria One Fine Day that Esther sings as the verdict is read out in court. Perhaps the most shocking moments surround that embrace in the police van, which have Jakob describe the horrific details of “frying” in the electric chair.
Ethel Rosenberg’s brother was implicated in betraying the couple and Phillips’ art imitates life here. David Girshfeld, Esther’s brother, begins as a serving soldier courting his fiancée, full of optimism for the future when the newlyweds discover they are expecting. Shocking events impact on the couple to give him a motive for “shopping” his brother-in-law, even though he is implicated in the theft. Sean Rigby and Eva-Jane Willis are touching in the contrast between their fierce joy and angry despair.
Arrested and tried, what dooms the Rubensteins is the febrile atmosphere of paranoia and hatred in America thanks to the McCarthy hearings, the witch hunt for Reds under the bed, which of course makes antisemitism explicit. Indeed, the couple reference Arthur Miller and his play The Crucible, which uses the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism. It is left to Stephen Billington’s entirely believable FBI Agent Paul Cranmer – his hard, uncompromising exterior belying his humanity – to try to throw Jakob a lifeline. It is not a spoiler to reveal that he refuses to take it. In the current atmosphere of social media trolling and abuse and the vicious polarity caused by divisive issues including Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far right, antisemitsm and Islamophobia, Maxwell’s thoughtful take on the implications of this tragic story is once again all too timely.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
The Rubenstein Kiss runs until Saturday 13 April. 7.30pm, 3pm (Sat & Tue only). £22, £18 concs. Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. 020 7407 0234. http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Listen to our interview with playwright James Phillips on JR OutLoud.