The Rubenstein Kiss is inspired by the true story of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg, a Jewish American couple who were executed in 1953 having been found guilty of espionage, specifically of passing nuclear weapons’ designs to the Soviet Union. Their case became something of a public controversy in America, with many feeling that they were harshly punished, particularly Ethel.
In writer James Phillips play, written and originally performed in 2005, the Rosenburgs become Esther and Jakob Rubenstein a young New York couple working to live an ordinary life through the second world war and the following years.
The play opens at a photography exhibition in the 1970s as two 20-somethings, Michael and Anna, meet while viewing the “Rubenstein Kiss”, a photograph taken of Esther and Jakob in a police van on the way to their execution. As Michael and Anna’s relationship develops, we discover their personal connections to the photograph and its subjects.
The play then goes back to the 1940s where we meet Esther and Jakob along with David, Esther’s brother and his girlfriend, Rachel and the narrative takes us through a slow build up of the circumstances that lead to the arrest and ultimate execution of the Rosenburgs.
The play moves cleverly back and forth between the 1940s and 50s to the 1970s, somewhat irritatingly announced by very loud static noise, but otherwise brilliantly handled as both eras utilise the same staging with gripping consequences.
Given the length of the play (165 minutes including interval) the relatively dry, historic nature of the story being told, and the fact that the fate of the main characters is detailed in the first scene, this could have been a challenging evening, but the play is absolutely riveting.
Ruby Bentall as Esther Rubenstein is phenomenal as the devoted wife, prepared to share her husband’s convictions with such passion she chooses to die for them and leave her son behind. She is so utterly convincing, I wanted to walk on stage and shake some sense in to her!
Sean Rigby as David Girshfeld captures the sense of a man intellectually out of his depth and fully aware of the fact; grappling with trying to do the right thing in an effort to compensate for his crimes. He is a man buffeted by circumstances, trying to please all the people he loves, which ultimately proves impossible and he is forced to make a choice. As the action moves back to the 1970s, the play interestingly touches on his later life, lived through the consequences of those choices and the infamy they have brought.
This is a well written and excellently performed play.
Reviewed by Lara Southworth
Photo: Scott Rylander
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