For Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, read Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in the United States in 1953 as Soviet nuclear spies. The poster image for James Phillips' production of his own play uses the original iconic image of the pair, handcuffed but still demonstrably in love, rather than a re-creation of the pose with actors Will Keen and Samantha Bond. The fictionalisation is not for the purposes of speculating about the espionage, real and/or alleged, but so that Phillips can invent a second plot strand set in 1975, when two young people meet and become involved in the campaign to posthumously clear the Rubensteins' name. Except that Matthew Madison turns out to be Matthew Rubenstein, and Anna Levy to be... well, one shouldn't give the entire game away.
Phillips is preoccupied with senses of identity and heritage. In working to clear his parents' name, Matthew is striving to reclaim his own true selfhood, whilst Anna seeks a corresponding but different rehabilitation for her family heritage; Jakob refuses to sign a confession, saying, "I will not sign my father's name to [the accusations of his brother-in-law] David Girshfeld"; there are many allusions to The Crucible, not simply to acknowledge the witch-hunting atmosphere of the times (the Rosenbergs' prosecutor was McCarthy's minion Roy Cohn) but to cite the similar concern of Arthur Miller's protagonist John Proctor for his name. And Jakob's undying belief in communism is at least as much a matter of individual dignity as of political ideology.
Phillips the director is generally adept at covering the occasional shortcomings of Phillips the debutant playwright. The occasional blatant "whoops! exposition!" lines ("That's what's happening now, in 1942!") are smoothed over, and younger actors Martin Hutson and Louisa Clein steered from an awkward 1975 opening (in which Clein in particular sounds like a character out of an offbeat Hal Ashby movie) into more confident performances in deeper emotional waters. He has a strong cast, including Alan Cox as Girshfeld; even Gary Kemp as the arresting FBI agent comes over as more than simply the former driving force behind pop group Spandau Ballet. Liz Ascroft's set design is magnificent, unlike Neil Alexander's sound plot: it's not difficult in this day and age to get the sound of a ringing phone or a crying baby to seem to come from the right area of the stage.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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