FringeReview UK 2019
Joe Harmston directs this Southwark Playhouse revival for Devil You Know Theatre Company. Sean Cavanagh’s spare traverse set is complemented by Mike Robertson’s mesmeric pinpoint lighting. Matthew Bugg’s sound provides the ominous static of electric discharge, and Cecilia Trono’s costumes are neatly understated. Till April 13th.
Two young people in 1975 meet as they gaze at an imaginary photograph of two people kissing passionately in 1953 – before they’re hauled off to be executed for treason. The nuclear-spying Rosenbergs, here lightly fictionalised, in James Phillips’ 2005 play The Rubenstein Kiss, set up a far more layered play than ostensible innocence; or even that canard the American loss of innocence.
Even more relevant now, declares Joe Harmston who directs this Southwark Playhouse revival for Devil You Know Theatre Company. Just as the play was finished, Arthur Miller died. But that’s not the reason The Rubenstein Kiss keeps referencing him It’s more than an overt homage. Miller’s 1953 The Crucible set in the 1692 Salem witch trials tackled McCarthyism – and his rage at the Rosenbergs’ treatment.
Phillips perhaps feels this is the work Miller might have liked to write that year, and in the year of his death heavily underscores his name. It’s not a crutch. As the Miller mini-boom continues in the West End his distant protégé provides a more than worthy pendant.
Sean Cavanagh’s spare traverse set with its table and chairs multi-tasking with or without tablecloth, model tenements in miniature at the two exits, and Mike Robertson’s mesmeric pinpoint lighting at one point tracing a single line across the table indicating a mesh, finger-touching and kissing. And halo effects. Matthew Bugg’s sound provides the ominous static of electric discharge and those songs, and Cecilia Trono’s costumes are neatly understated.
There’s links too between the passionate lawyer Matthew Rubenstein (given the new surname Madison) and Katie Eldred’s ‘pushy’ history teacher Anna Levi. And far more than either of them guess. Though we sashay between 1942-53 and 1975, we never lose sight of this apparent subplot, developing alongside that of Ruby Benthall’s Esther Rubenstein and her husband Jakob played by Henry Proffit.
It’s their kitchen in 1942 filled with laughter as the fiancé of Esther’s brother David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby) arrives. It’s clear that Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis) is as communist a they, and the quartet heart-warmingly recall Esther’s singing days – ending when she realized her voice wasn’t strong enough for the Carnegie Hall. But a small voice can carry, and Esther’s Puccini sings out of bars.
Girshfeld, a technical sergeant at Los Alamos arrives with some strange metal souvenirs as ashtrays, and his now wife’s confession of pregnancy is followed by a miscarriage. Girshfeld realizes might be due to those weird metals. That’s not all. He has contacts and Jakob realizes he must leave the U.S. immediately. The FBI though in the shape of Stephen Billington’s agent Paul Cranmer, are quicker.
So how much do the Rubensteins know? Girshfeld accuses them of being his recruiters. Phillips never establishes this, though there’s some twists at the end. He’s more concerned with ideals, loyalty, betrayal. Because it’s their ideal, and they may not have another in their life. Cranmer’s no cipher. He comes to admire Jakob, then Esther. ‘A man must stand up’ Jakob says and the last person who said that was Cranmer’s lieutenant at the siege of Bastogne, in the Battle of the Bulge. Cranmer wants to save them he says. Confess. Is it he concludes, their vanity?
Their son at their executions is playing baseball with a social worker, oblivious of his parents’ fate – rather like the end of Woyzeck. It’s one of the most striking images on this play, heavy with pauses and lingering desolate kisses. Only in this case there’s a career for Matthew, a march and three 1953 characters making various inroads on the present.
In a deftly constructed, sometimes beautifully dovetailed plot, outstanding acting is heightened by seamless transitions, a sloughing of coat and lighting shift in the beat of crossing a table. A few speeches need trimming. There’s (very few) longeurs too, drops in energy flawing an otherwise admirable drama; the pace might pick up here.
No reflections on the acting though. Billington only in the second act nevertheless transitions from steely FBI to human transgressor, nicknamed Paul the Convert he says to Jakob. And Billington deepens this even later. Willis moves from ardently warm friend to defensive mother, and Rigby’s bluff normality is stretched and shattered convincingly.
Eldred making her debut here is winningly assured and particularly fine at showing how much a mere change of expression can register. Coates’ portrayal of a wronged avenger never over-tips the attractiveness Matthew reveals to Eldred’s Anna and the two come particularly into their own in the last scenes. There’s denouements and revelations that shouldn’t be spoiled here.
Bentall and Proffit as the more ill-starred pair are achingly fine. Bentall’s singing describes a searing arc with just the right pause before heartbreak, and she manages Esther’s swift alternation of steely courage and sometimes erotic abandon under extremes with a blazing conviction. Proffit’s quietly-spoken communist and family man seems occasionally over-loud as he’s cornered, but this actually works and like Bentall he manages the dignity of a Miller hero.
Yet again Southwark Playhouse mounts a must-see revival, superbly acted. In 2003, whilst this play was being written the great Guardian columnist Gary Yonge wrote memorably: ‘We’re always being told about the American loss of innocence. They always seem to find it again just in time for the next bad idea.’ This magnificent, only slightly flawed play is a timely reminder. If you care for grippingly argued, passionate theatre, you must see this.