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The Rubenstein Kiss at Southwark Playhouse

Dario Coates (Matthew) in THE RUBENSTEIN KISS. Credit Scott Rylander.
Dario Coates (Matthew) in THE RUBENSTEIN KISS. Credit Scott Rylander.

The Rubenstein Kiss eventually becomes something of a Cold War thriller, but there’s a lot of backstory to be muddled through before FBI Agent Paul Cranmer (Stephen Billington) gets to question Jakob Rubenstein (Henry Proffit), Jakob’s wife Esther (Ruby Bentall), and Esther’s brother David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby). The interrogator comes across as someone somewhat sympathetic to the Rubensteins, even if they’re having none of it. Only Girshfeld has given Cranmer the answers Cranmer desires, and there is a growing body of evidence that leads the FBI (or ‘the Bureau’ as Cranmer calls it) to suspect the Rubensteins of indulging in espionage for what was the USSR.

It is only when looking at the source material for the play that it becomes clear why there was a need to include the next generation – the Rubenstein’s son, Matthew (Dario Coates) plus Girshfeld’s daughter Anna (Katie Eldred). Completing the set of on-stage characters is Girshfeld’s significant other, Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis). The play, according to the show’s programme, is “inspired by the haunting true story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for allegedly providing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union”. It was something of a cause celebre when it happened: McCarthyism was still at its height. To this day, it is their sons, Michael and Robert, now in their seventies, who continue to fight for a posthumous exoneration for their mother as she had not been directly involved in whatever went on at the time. This is mirrored in a commitment by Matthew in the closing minutes of the play to “Fight. Carry it on. Make a speech. Fight.” The play flits between 1942 and 1975, as well as some intervening years, though presenting events in non-chronological order isn’t the only thing that makes the production more complicated than it should be. There are minimal changes to the set throughout (which is not hugely problematic in itself, given the sheer amount of exposition in the script) but this makes a desk in an interrogation room surrounded by chairs not much different in terms of its style and feel from the Rubensteins’ dinner table.

At least the costumes (Cecilia Trono) are markedly different depending on which decade a scene happens to be in. Each scene change is slightly irritatingly denoted by a gradually building wall of noise that builds to a crescendo, only for that to prove anticlimactic as another round of talking heads begins. I cannot, however, fault any of the cast. Billington’s Cranmer is palpably frustrated that the Rubensteins are choosing to stay true to their principles, even if this means paying the very highest penalty for doing so: “Confess and live. That’s the deal.” Coates’ Matthew, meanwhile, has a voice that booms out across the Southwark Playhouse auditorium with a fiery conviction.

I suppose a play of this nature is fairly timely with the ongoing (apparent) phenomenon of ‘fake news’. A note from the production’s director, Joe Harmston, aligns events in the play with the suspicions of ‘Leavers’ against ‘Remainers’ and vice versa. Such a comparison is rather farfetched for me – voting one way or the other in a referendum is hardly tantamount to espionage for an enemy state. I do agree, however, that these are rather troubled times. The play references Arthur Miller in the opening scene, and indeed the pressures on this family are comparable to, say, The Crucible, even if it’s The Rubenstein Kiss that tells audiences so in a slightly unnecessary synopsis that Anna gives Matthew.

I can’t, alas, vouch either way for the authenticity of these New Yorker accents, though none seemed out of place as far as I could tell. There are ebbs and flows but overall, it’s a poignant and engaging production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

1953. In the midst of the Cold War and with McCarthyism at its height, the world watched as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair for allegedly passing US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union – protesting their innocence to the last. Inspired by this haunting true story, James Phillips‘ multi-award winning play The Rubenstein Kiss (TMA and John Whiting awards for Best New Play) comes to Southwark Playhouse in its first London revival.

The Rubenstein Kiss is the story of the Rubensteins, a deeply devoted Jewish couple whose Communist idealism leads to their world being torn apart by suspicion and treachery which then echoes through the generations. Starring Ruby Bentall (Poldark, Lark Rise to Candleford) Sean Rigby (Endeavour, Gunpowder), and Stephen Billington (Coronation Street, Casualty), Phillips’ explosive and affecting drama is the study of conspiracy, betrayal and the interrogation of guilt. Phillips’ explosive and affecting drama is the study of conspiracy, betrayal and the interrogation of guilt.

At a time when its political relevance is felt strongly in today’s polarised political climate, Joe Harmston (The Lover, The Collection, Donmar Warehouse) directs an important revival of this poignant and stunning drama.

Creative Team
Director – Joe Harmston
Associate Director – Anthony Houghton
Set Designer – Sean Cavanagh
Sound Designer – Matthew Bugg
Costume Designer – Cecilia Trono
Lighting Designers – Mike Robertson and Holly Ellis
Casting Director – Kate Plantin CDG

Cast
Ruby Bentall, Stephen Billington, Dario Coates, Katie Eldred, Henry Proffit, Sean Rigby, Eva-Jane Willis.

Devil You Know presents
The Rubenstein Kiss
by James Phillips
14 MAR – 13 APR 2019
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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