‘The war is inside as well as outside’
James Phillips’ debut play is set in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy witch hunt, when Jewish-American communists, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, despite protesting their innocence to the last. They were ultimately condemned on the evidence of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who was himself imprisoned for his part in the alleged conspiracy. Changing the names allows Philips scope for artistic licence. He grafts a fictional element, the framing device, on to the facts, and eventually mixes both plots together.
It is cleverly structured around two generations: the Rubenstein couple in the 50s and Esther Rubenstein’s brother and his wife, alongside the two children of these relationships in the 70s; cousins living with the history of their parents’ controversial lives.
The first act opens with the cousins, Anna and Matthew who are strangers who meet at an exhibition of photos from the fifties. There are better-known images there than one of Jakob and Esther kissing (most notably Marilyn Monroe on the Subway vent), but they are both drawn to this one. The image is replicated several times in the pairings throughout the play. It becomes even more tender when you realise this photo was taken in that couples’ last moments together before they were executed for being traitors. We see the devoted Jewish couple who are looking forward to the return of Ethel’s brother David, who has been stationed abroad during the Second World War. Only later is it revealed that he has been working on developing the first atomic bomb which would later be used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The cast is a tight one of seven actors. Joe Cohen is superb as Jakob Rubenstein;Esther (Katherine Manners) glows with a palpable sexual love for Jacob (Joe Coen), her vital strength constantly supporting his quiet sturdy idealism. Her mood is punctuated with soaring arias from Puccini. Mark Field portrays David’s, self-confessed ‘small man’ profile and encourages his brother to ‘Confess and live. That’s the deal’. His wife, Rachel (Ellie Burrow) is an everywoman of her time; concerned only with home and stability. Simon Haines is convincingly gauche in his role of Matthew and researcher of law and past cases. Equally, Gillian Saker is utterly believable and sympathetic as Anna. A late comer into the play’s action is Cornell S John as FBI agent Paul Cramner. John plays his role with a very human touch; one who is strict as the FBI investigator but seen years later as someone who harbours a great degree of empathy towards the remaining families living with the legacy.
The themes of the play are carefully interwoven: love, family and death appear inseparable as the characters struggle with the consequences and the lack of loyalty – themes which resonate with us all. Throughout there are references and parallels drawn with Munroe and Clarke Gable and in particular, Arthur Miller’s ‘Crucible’ and in particular, John Proctor.
The Rubenstein Kiss is a worthy, intense and intelligent piece of work and slickly directed by Zoe Watermann