Writer: James Phillips
Director: Zoe Waterman
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree
James Phillips gripping play is based entirely on the real life story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American citizens sent to the electric chair in the 1950s for giving away, or at least, conspiring to give away, secret scientific information to Russia. Set during the height of the cold war when the world was still reeling from the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the plot is easily accessed by reading the synopsis of the Rosenberg’s tale.
Names have been slightly altered, Julius becomes Jacob and his wife, Ethel, Ester. Her brother, who betrayed them to McCarthy’s FBI, David Greenglass, is David Girshfeld and his fiancé, later his wife Ruth, becomes Rachel. All seem to have held affiliation to the Young Communist Party to some extent. A risky business at that time.A strong cast bring these characters off the page with great strength and clarity.
The play follows the newspaper reports and conversations and situations are invented, of course, but this is a legitimate dramatic device in historical drama since the days of Shakespeare and long before. Bronia Houseman’s sets are sparse and ingenious. The backdrop is a gloomy, worn wall, which could be either exterior or interior and it establishes a somewhat downtrodden atmosphere. On closer inspectionthe audience is able to detect the iconic image of a mushroom cloud among it.
The title of the play is derived from the iconic black and white photograph of a couple in a passionate embrace in the back of a police van. Two young people, whose significant identities are revealed later in the play, are visiting a gallery of contemporary pictures in which the picture hangs.
The next scene is a homely kitchen where a married couple, the Rubensteins, entertain her brother and his fiancée. There is welcoming cheery banter between the four, which is reminiscent of happy childhoods. Time moves on. The kitchen is smartened up. Items of furniture glide around, a washing line is hoisted out of sight and is replaced by a light. The Rubensteins have a baby and Rachel Girshfeld is pregnant. There is talk of the men’s work which involves scientific advances in the military defence of the country. They speak of the horrors in Japan. Ironically Ester, a singer, is obsessed with Puccini’s Japanese tragic heroine, Madame Butterfly and her music pervades the production. We are led to see them as two normal couples with small children. So, later, it is a surprise to hear Rachel’s description of a trial and to see her have to beat a hasty retreat via a fire escape when there is violent knocking at a door.
The play ends with the imprisonment of the main characters, two of whom are awaiting execution. There are statements from Jakob that his membership of the Communist Party was driven by his desire to be ‘Fighting undeserved privilege’ and that he does not fear death because he believes that ‘our ideas outlive us and are more important than our lives.’
This is an extremely interesting and engaging piece of theatre.
Runs until 31 October 2015