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The Comedy of Errors

The Rubenstein Kiss

9 October 15 words: Jared Wilson
Nottingham Playhouse's Conspiracy Season continues with a story about family, loyalty, imprisonment, execution and the Hiroshima bomb
Matthew and Anna - Photo by Robert Day

Matthew and Anna. photo: Robert Day

The Conspiracy Season at Nottingham Playhouse continues after the success of 1984, with this play by James Phillips. It is set amidst the McCarthyite hysteria of the Cold War era, where the shadow of suspicion falls on two Communist idealists Jakob and Esther Rubenstein (aka Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).

It starts out with two strangers, Anna and Matthew, talking in an exhibition of photos from the fifties. There are better-known images there than one of Jakob and Esther kissing (most notably Marilyn Monroe on the Subway vent), but they are both drawn to this one, for reasons we will discover later.

Anna and Matthew soon become intimate, but withhold secrets that only the other could actually understand. These centre around the photograph and the story behind it, which splits a family by leaving its members with almost impossible decisions to make about betrayal.

The Rosenberg kiss - the actual couple this play is about in real life

The Rosenberg Kiss

The iconic photo (above) is particularly emotive when you understand the context. On first glance it’s easy for the brain to ignore the visible handcuffs and police van mesh backdrop. But the kiss becomes even more tender when you realise this photo was taken in that couples last moments together before they were executed for being traitors. 

I’ve given enough away already, so you should go and see it to work out the rest of the plot for yourself. The cast is a tight one of seven actors. Joe Coen has been singled out for praise in particular by other critics, but for me it’s splitting hairs to applaud him over the others. They are all superb.

It seems churlish to level any criticism at a play I enjoyed more than any I have seen this year, but there are two things I did pick up on. Firstly there is a scene where Matthew discovers some secrets about his family involving a table which comes apart far too easily and jars with the importance of what it represents. Secondly it would have been interesting to see the inferred dialogue between Anna and her mother Rachel Liebermann on stage. The latter’s side of the story is a pivotal one historically, yet is not told at all in this production.

Overall, this production is a credit to Nottingham Playhouse and to a season which has rightfully generated a lot of interest. I went in knowing nothing about the true historical story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and I went out needing ten minutes to gather my thoughts, before about two hours of Googling to find out more about their story. Google tells you that they were traitors to their country, but the play leaves it all nicely open. History is written by the winners after all…

The Rubenstein Kiss is showing at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 17 October.

Nottingham Playhouse website

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