Nottingham Playhouse’s Conspiracy Season continued this week with a performance of James Philips’ ambitious and powerful The Rubenstein Kiss.
The story is based closely on that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the US couple executed in 1953 for their role in handing over secrets of the atomic bomb to Soviet Russia. We are introduced to Jakob Rubenstein and his wife Ethel first as a portrait in an art gallery, in 1970s New York. The pair, who are kissing, attract the attention of two earnest young university students, Matthew and Anna, who become lovers themselves and develop a deep fascination with the Rubensteins.
At first there is nothing to suggest the Rubensteins have anything to do with espionage. At home inside their brownstone New York apartment – the sort of which you’ve seen in countless films and TV programmes – we see a devoted Jewish couple who are looking forward to the return of Ethel’s brother David, who has been stationed abroad during the Second World War. Only later is it revealed that he has been working on developing the first atomic bomb which would later be used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the beginning, there is an air of optimism; David has just returned from the war and Ethel, who often sings joyously, is pleased that he is settling down with his new wife Rachel. There are also plans for him to become a partner in Jakob’s new business venture.
But it’s not long before life for the family takes a darker turn as the business fails and Rachel and David lose their baby. A sense of foreboding starts to take over, and it becomes apparent there are troubling secrets bubbling beneath the surface.
Running alongside this, Matthew and Anna are starting to delve into the lives of the Rubensteins. Matthew, a law student, begins a personal crusade to clear their name, which leads to him uncovering a troubling series of events.
The strength of Rubenstein Kiss no doubt lies in its examination of how the boundaries between the political and personal can be blurred. Jakob’s communist beliefs are unwavering, as he tells us, somewhat chillingly, that ideology is more important than anything and that ‘the ends justify the means’. What is less clear is Ethel’s alignment to the cause although no-one can doubt her devotion to her husband.
This is a long and challenging play which is heavily influenced by Arthur Miller, perhaps a little self-consciously at times. Nevertheless, the actors all delivered magnificent performances and their accents were entirely believable. Some of the most intense moments came from the dialogue between Jakob and the FBI agent, Paul Cramner whose questions mirror our own: how guilty – or innocent – are the Rubensteins?
The Rubenstein Kiss is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 17 October. Visit the website for more details and tickets.