The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for passing US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s was one the most notorious incidents of the Cold War and all the attendant anti-communist hysteria in the US. It’s a story that still has the power to anger and fascinate and it’s easy to see what drew playwright James Phillips into basing his debut work around the Rosenberg case.
This is not however a straightforward dramatisation of events. The Hampstead Theatre programme notes make a point of including the disclaimer that the play is “inspired by a true story which has been substantially fictionalised.” Yet though names, characters and events have been altered and invented by Phillips, the mess and complexity of real life are no less evident for his tampering and one questions the thinking behind some of his additions.
The Rubenstein Kiss is, despite that, a layered, frequently intriguing drama. In the 1970s, Matthew, a young law student and Anna, a history teacher, are drawn to each other in a galley by their shared fascination of a photograph of (thinly fictionalised) Esther and Jakob Rubenstein, under arrest, caught in an embrace. The play proceeds to alternate scenes of the young couple’s burgeoning relationship with ’40s set scenes tracing the Rubensteins’ lives from the war years, through to their arrest and interrogation, and up until their execution, everything played out in front of Liz Ascroft’s stock urban tenement backdrop, a set that rather brings to mind the cover of Led Zep’s Physical Grafitti.
The play boasts some excellent performances. Will Keen is superb as the conflicted Jakob, as committed and passionate in regards to his ideology as he is with his wife. And Samantha Bond is also memorable as Esther, though her character remains enigmatic throughout. Emily Bruni also stands out as Rachel, Esther’s increasingly anxious sister-in-law.
As things progress, Phillips successfully contrasts the Rubensteins’ unswerving conviction that what they were doing was right with the fallout their sacrifice ends up having on their family’s next generation; but he only skirts around the matter of their actual guilt or innocence. He seems to want it both ways and fumbles the issue as a result.
The relationship between Matthew and Anna too, though well performed by Martin Hutson and Luisa Clein and not without its touching moments, is undercut by an over reliance on some faintly Dawson’s Creek dialogue. Peppered with references to “absence” and “bottle blonde nostalgia,” many of their interchanges feel clunky and forced. Their relationship, and indeed the play itself, also hangs on a major plot contrivance that was somewhat difficult to swallow.
Sluggish to begin with, The Rubenstein Kiss tightens considerably in the second act and Phillips produces some inspired final scenes that are genuinely moving. This was an impressively ambitious work, touching upon ideas of family and betrayal, honour and duty, but, at nearly three hours, it cried out for some editing (perhaps a director other than Phillips would have been a wise idea) and diluted its strongest moments along the way.