James Phillips’ debut play, The Rubenstein Kiss, is something you watch knowing that the story will haunt you for a long time afterwards. As the lights dim upon the last scene and the audience burst into enthusiastic applause, the end does not seem final. This play presents questions and ideas about family, loyalty, love and death that cannot simply end with the playwright’s final scene. In short, The Rubenstein Kiss is fascinating.
Many seated within the audience will know the story of the Rosenbergs – the American Jewish couple upon whom the play is based. Within the Cold War era, when political and military tensions were high, the Rosenbergs faced a horrific test of their ideology – whether this is political, or a quest for the truth is unknown. Yet, one truth does prevail throughout their hardship, and that is one of love.
“The dialogue is at times beautifully poetic as characters deal with issues of love, fear and death”
The Rosenbergs, named Jakob and Esther Rubenstein in Phillips’ interpretation, were convicted of passing atomic bomb secrets to Russia, with Ethel Rosenberg’s brother being on the convicting panel. The couple were labelled spies and consequently given a criminal penalty of execution. Not once did they admit these charges and the pair protested their innocence until the dates of their death – a dark foreboding that the play does not let us forget as, even in scenes of domesticity, the actors are overlooked by an American flag depicting a brain as a reference to their method of execution. In scenes of vibrancy and life, such as Esther’s operatic outbursts, or explosions of passion, all is overshadowed by the inevitability of their contested deaths.
The play is cleverly structured around two generations: the Rubenstein couple and Esther Rubenstein’s brother and his wife, alongside the two children of these relationships; cousins living with the history of their parents’ controversial lives. This enables the play to draw startling parallels between past and present, showing the didactic significance of history as the two cousins grapple desperately and passionately to unveil the truth of their parents’ lives.
“The themes of the play are carefully interwoven and love, family and death appear inseparable”
The dialogue is at times beautifully poetic as characters deal with issues of love, fear and death all encased within a familial context. Esther Rubenstein (played by Katherine Manners) adopts particular idiosyncrasies and mannerisms consistently throughout, demonstrating the beautiful individualism of her character as we ourselves try to understand what herself and Jakob (played by Joe Coen) believe in. One belief expressly articulated within the play is that of marriage; but with the actor’s intimate and sometimes desperate displays of love interspersed within the narrative, there was never any doubt of this. The performance between the two is astonishing.
This heart-wrenching performance carries the pair from displays of domesticity, to scenes of capture and interrogation as harsh lights bear down upon the faces of the couple. The vibrancy of the two, who danced, sang and conversed around the kitchen table, is contorted and can even be construed as madness as the contexts change; a genius encapsulation of the issues of truth, reality and interpretation that the play makes us consistently consider, alongside their son (played by Simon Haines) and niece (played by Gillian Saker). The themes of the play are carefully interwoven and love, family and death appear inseparable as the characters struggle with the consequences of loyalty – or a lack thereof.
As the play finishes upon a tender, innocent and symbolic scene presented within the Rubenstein family home, you can’t help but reference the beginning of the play where an art gallery presents a photograph of Jakob and Esther stood, caught in time and love, as 1950’s icons. They were sharing the Rubenstein kiss.
The Rubenstein Kiss is running at The Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 17th October. For more information see here.