Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The Rubenstein Kiss
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
17th October 2015
Politics, ethics, loyalty and love are tangled in this thought-provoking new production of the debut play of British playwright James Phillips, first produced ten years ago in the Hampstead Theatre, it won the John Whiting Award and the TMA Award for Best New Play that year. The Yvonne Arnaud production which ran in Guildford during the last week of October 2015 lived up to all my expectations.
The story and characters are based on real-life events in the 1950’s and ‘70’s in America, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Communist spies in the Cold War, mainly on the evidence of David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, and despite the couple’s pleas to the end that they were innocent.
The title refers to the photograph that inspired James Phillips to write his play, of the couple kissing passionately in a police van while in custody. But Phillips has written more than a docufiction. We’re witnesses to the intense emotional lives, close family relationships and passionate ideological discussions of Jacob and Esther Rubenstein, David and Rachel Girshfield, (as he names the historical characters) and Anna and Matthew in the 1970’s. The playwright’s prerogative to invent a story is fully justified by this powerful play.
Katherine Manners as Esther glows with a palpable sexual love for Jacob (Joe Coen, her vital strength constantly supporting his quiet sturdy idealism. Mark Field inhabits David, self-confessed “small man”, with great conviction. His wife, Rachel (Ellie Burrow) is “everywoman”, concerned only with home and stability. The young couple of the next generation (Simon Haines and Gillian Saker) skilfully play their part in a dialogue between past and present.
Cornell St John as Paul Cranmer, who deals with the Rubenstein case, succeeds in interpreting the FBI agent as a humane but conscientious agent of the U S government to whom the Rubensteins remain intransigent, because, says Esther, “the war is inside as well as outside.”
“You can be good and bad all at once in a single action,” Anna quotes her mother. This play is about such actions. It’s about ideas, idealism, loyalty (“Love in action” says Esther), the choices made by small people to protect their families, about individuals’ choices based on big ideological stances and political ideas (“I’m fighting undeserved privilege” says Jacob) and being true to (and blinkered by) those choices. It’s about the role of sexual love and affection in all of this.
This is a play to be seen and savoured on many levels. As others have remarked, it poses more questions than it answers, as good theatre should.