Tuesday, 19 March 2019

REVIEW: The Rubenstein Kiss at the Southwark Playhouse

Is it me or is communism and the Cold War becoming a trend in theatre and film right now? More precisely, the force that communism seemed to represent even in territories that were its “enemies”?

The Southwark Playhouse’s latest production, The Rubenstein Kiss, is a tense and wonderfully acted play written in 2005 by James Phillips. In 1953, Esther and Jakob Rubenstein were executed by the American government for being spies and informing the Soviets on American secrets regarding the atomic bomb. One of the characters in the play, Anna Levi, says “this is a James Bond” film! The topic around spies sometimes does seem too good to be true, but this is a true story and fascinating for that reason. Also, the play does not just focus on a grand theme, but on the Rubenstein family, their relatives, friends and life in New York City. We meet headstrong, intelligent and proud individuals who enjoy parties and love each other deeply. When they are accused of betraying their country, their insistence on their innocence costs them their lives.

What really stood out for me was the quality of the acting in this show, supported by strong writing, with particular scenes throwing the audience and the relationships between characters in all possible directions. 

Ruby Bentall as Esther and Henry Proffit at Jakob Rubenstein are a beautiful couple, truly intimate and who would do anything for each other. Sean Rigby is strong as David Girshfeld, Esther’s brother, who has trouble with remembering what words mean, and ends up betraying the couple to save his wife and daughter Anna. Twenty years later, Anna (played by the excellent Katie Eldred), has had to change her family name in order not to be associated with her parents who are seen by the public as liars. She is also dealing with a certain guilt of being alive. 

What is your responsibility when those before you have died, whether in the War
or by accident? How do you honour them, and live strongly enough to not spoil your own life with guilt? There is this sense that we may never again feel what the post-war generation felt. Overall, the cast conveys this stress and feeling of guilt very well.

Sean Cavanagh designed the stage as a traverse stage, and I didn’t feel this added to the story. I feel like a more classic staging could have worked too, even helping certain effects. There would often be actors turning their backs to the public in important moments. 

Mike Robertson’s lighting was precise and sometimes worrying, supported by Cecilia Trono’s costume work, which mixed vivid colours with browns and greys, supporting the characters’ development. Rachel Liebermann’s (Eva-Jane Willis) grey sweater for example was a shocking sight after seeing her so brightly dance around the stage. 

I thought the play went on for a bit too long. However the last ten minutes were stunning, a perfect mix of movement direction and emotion. 

This is overall a strong production which reminds us of how we are all connected to each other, even those who have passed. It also poses the question of the importance of knowing the whole truth about those who are no longer here.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★

Seat: B16 | Price of Ticket: £22
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