The Rubenstein Kiss
Hampstead Theatre November 2005
James Phillips' new play begins with the feel of a based-on-fact American TV movie, but it grows and deepens into a moving, if slightly muddied, rumination on values, commitment and a sense of self.
The play is openly based on the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were executed in 1953 for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.
Because they claimed innocence right up to the end, they became a major cause for left-wing, ban-the-bomb and anti-capital-punishment activists during their trial and long afterwards.
(As evidence later released has shown, they were indeed guilty, though it is also true that they were somewhat railroaded by the anti-Communist hysteria of the period.)
Phillips explores the psychology and emotions that could lead them first to do the espionage and then to maintain their innocence when, it is made clear, confessions would have resulted in moderate prison sentences rather than execution.
He finds the answer to both in a commitment to values and principles that are not just political theories but part of the characters' sense of who they are.
His Julius figure, here called Jakob Rubenstein, believes to his soul in all the highest ideals of socialism and identifies them, as many did in the 1930s but fewer and fewer were able to do in the Stalin era, with the Soviet experiment.
What he is doing is, in his mind, neither anti-American nor pro-Soviet, but simply Right. And to confess just to save his life would be to label it a crime and deny everything by which he has defined himself.
Phillips explicitly refers to Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and its protagonist's refusal to negate everything he has lived by just to save his life. In effect he is taking Miller one step further, by offering this as a justification for the guilty as well as the innocent.
A subplot shows a young couple in the 1970s, each with their own secret reason for being drawn to the spies' story (You'll guess one secret within minutes, though the other may surprise you), re-exploring the record.
It is the weaker half of the play, just because they are a little too obviously playwright's devices, and because their resolution muddies things, as the boy is inspired by what he learns about Jakob to commit himself fully to his own self-defining cause despite knowing it to be a false one.
Will Keen plays Jakob with a stage-dominating intensity that at first seems the near-madness of an ideologue, but evolves into a purity of honour that goes far toward justifying him.
Samantha Bond makes his wife somewhat simpler but equally sympathetic, her absolute commitment being to her love and admiration for her husband.
Martin Hutson and Louisa Clein make the young couple as real as their sketched-in characterisations will allow. The author directs with a sure hand, establishing a sedate pace that conveys a sense of gravity without losing forward momentum.
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Review of The Rubenstein Kiss - Hampstead Theatre 2005