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Review: The Rubenstein Kiss, at Southwark Playouse

29 March, 2019 — By Leo Garib

Ruby Bentall (Esther Rubenstein) and Henry Proffit (Jakob Rubenstein) in The Rubenstein Kiss. Photo: Scott Rylander

MOMENTS after they were sentenced to die in the electric chair, Ethel and Jakob Rosenberg emerged from the New York court and kissed passionately. It was 1953, the height of the Cold War and they had just been convicted of passing America’s atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Their cuffed embrace was captured amid an explosion of flashbulbs, a symbol of America’s most infamous espionage case and a trial that split world opinion.

Ethel and Jakob had been lifelong communists who believed passionately in the Soviet Union and had done a little spying for the Russians. Jakob had recruited his wife’s brother David Greenglass, an army engineer with a minor part in the Manhattan atom bomb project and together they passed blueprints to the KGB. The drawings turned out to be unimportant but in the hysteria of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt, their treason was front-page news.

The FBI pressed Greenglass to finger his sister in exchange for a lighter sentence and immunity for his wife. Ethel, known to be innocent, was leverage to make Jakob crack. But even on death row, torn from their two baby boys, the couple refused to name names. For that they were, uniquely among convicted spies, handed a death sentence. The Pope and Picasso were among those who pleaded for clemency. Even America’s cold war allies questioned whether it had gone too far.

Their execution ripped apart the Rosenberg-Greenglass family. For his betrayal, Greenglass became a target of public ire and was forced into hiding with his family. The Rosenbergs became a byword for defiance and the two sides of the family remain estranged to this day.

We don’t actually see the iconic photograph in this production of James Phillips’ award-winning play but we are invited to use our mind’s eye. Its absence turns out to be a metaphor for the play’s studied ambiguity. It is the story of Rosenberg-Greenglass children struggling with their parent’s betrayals and guilt told with flashbacks to the events of the early 1950s.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Dario Coates and Katie Eldred bring energy to the parts of the Rubenstein’s son Matthew, and David’s daughter, Anna. Years after the execution they bump into each other and without knowing the other’s identity fall in love. Driven by naïve enthusiasm they set out to prove Ethel and Jakob were fitted-up, a legal cause celebre at the time. Cue a journey of discovery and wrestling with their legacies.

Ethel and Jakob – here the Rubenstein’s – are likeable, admirably stoic, but fatally flawed. A standout Ruby Bentall and Henry Proffit are the misguided couple in a trap. Sean Rigby is superb as David Greenglass – here David Girshfeld, a weak man turned Judas. Eva-Jane Willis, as Girshfeld’s wife, and Stephen Billington, the FBI agent who snares them, put in strong performances.

The Rosenberg’s real-life children Robert and Michael live on in the shadow of their parents executions with just a handful of childhood memories and a moving last letter from death row. One memory, of playing baseball one evening, looms large. Oddly, their carers left them to play on as dusk fell and it was then that eight year-old Michael was struck by the epiphany: sunset that evening was the moment their parents were being electrocuted in Sing-Sing prison. A poignant flashback in Phillips’ play.

The boys were eventually adopted by communist sympathisers Anne and Abel Meeropol, who wrote Billie Holiday’s famous song Strange Fruit. They have spent their lives trying to clear their mother’s name, even lobbying Obama. Robert, a lawyer in his seventies who campaigns against the death penalty, runs a global charity for children whose parents are politically persecuted.

Written in 2006 during the war on terror when we were being told to choose sides, Phillips’ play has a new relevance in the wake of Brexit and Trump, said director Joe Harmston: “Who can honestly say that they don’t look at their fellow tube or bus passengers and wonder which side of the debates their loyalties lie?”

Until April 13
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