The Rubenstein Kiss

James Phillips
Hampstead Theatre
(2005)

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"Our ideas are more important than our lives".

The story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is so powerful that it is an obvious choice for writers who wish to investigate spies and families. How could it be otherwise when their death is described as "the most famous suicide in American history"?

Already Tony Kushner in Angels in America and E L Doctorow in his novel the Book of Daniel have borrowed their stories. Now British playwright and director James Phillips has woven a thinly disguised plot around their lives.

It is not difficult to spot that Jacob and Esther Rubenstein, the Rodin-inspired kissers of the title, are intended to represent the real-life martyred spies who were taken to the electric chair protesting their innocence in 1953.

Phillips, who also directs, has chosen to illuminate the historical realism of scenes in the 1940s and 50s with a parallel story set in 1975.

In this, Matthew and Anna (Martin Hutson and Louisa Clein) find each other in a beautifully reproduced art gallery, courtesy of designer Liz Ascroft who moves on to even better things as it peels away to reveal a drab New York tenement that looks entirely realistic.

They meet in front of a reproduction of a portrait of the spies kissing and in no time, are doing the same themselves. After any number of plot twists, not only do we find, unsurprisingly, that Matthew is none other than the grown-up version of the baby that the Rubensteins proudly show off but that Anna, in a one-in-a-million coincidence, is his cousin. This laboured device allows them to discuss the past with feeling, if not great authority.

The real value of this play is in that past. Will Keen and Samantha (Miss Moneypenny) Bond are Jakob and Esther, a loving but very committed couple for whom The Party (the word Communist is unnecessary for such believers) means more than life itself.

Esther's brother and Anna's father, David (Alan Cox) has problems with words but he is such as scientific genius that he is posted to Los Alamos as Oppenheimer is working on the Manhattan project, which will lead to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There, the brothers-in-law become involved in passing secrets to the Russians. After the war, the relationship becomes complicated, both by this issue and David's failure to become a father, which he and his wife Rachel (Emily Bruni) attribute to uranium.

Things really hot up after the interval as Jacob and Esther find themselves in prison and, following interrogation by a McCarthyite G-man Cranmer (played by Gary Kemp, still best known for his performances with both Spandau Ballet and the Krays), condemned to death.

The agony of doing right by your beliefs, and consequently losing your life, is well depicted and the final meetings between Will Keen and Samantha Bond are extremely moving.

The Rubenstein Kiss features good acting and shows much promise but, as so often when young writers direct their own work, could have been greatly improved. It lasts three hours when two would have been adequate and in the final analysis, had the 1975 element been dropped completely, little would have been lost.

James Phillips can be ponderous but his writing is also often very powerful and he has the knack of writing memorable lines such as the one at the beginning of this review.

The conclusion is that this play may not be very dramatic and might have worked better developed into a novel. However, while it is not necessarily going to be a hit, at the very least it qualifies as a worthy near miss.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher