Poldark’s Ruby Bentall stars in Cold War drama based on real-life Jewish spies
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Poldark’s Ruby Bentall stars in Cold War drama based on real-life Jewish spies

The Rubenstein Kiss is based on the true story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed over reported Communist sympathies

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Suspicion, espionage, betrayal and guilt may sound like the makings of a gripping thriller, but for all its dramatic imaginings, The Rubenstein Kiss is based on the true story of one Jewish couple, who were controversially convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and the hysteria of McCarthyism, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who lived in New York and identified with the communist cause, were accused of heading up a spy ring that passed on sensitive information about the atomic bomb.

Despite protesting their innocence to the last, they were convicted and sent to the electric chair on 19 June 1953.

Their intriguing story is now brought to life in a revival of James Phillips’ award-winning play, which opens at Southwark Playhouse next week.

Poldark actress Ruby Bentall takes on the role of Esther Rubenstein (based on Ethel), opposite Henry Proffit as her husband Jakob (Julius), alongside Sean Rigby and Stephen Billington.

Speaking during a break from rehearsals, the 30-year-old actress says her interest was piqued by the play’s exploration of the reasons behind Esther and Jakob’s treacherous actions.

She explains: “You can get the facts, but the motivation for what they did is not so easy to find. It was so dramatic what they gave up and hard to understand how their belief in the communist cause was so strong that they would just die for it. As an actress, it was challenging to get into the mindset of why someone would do that.”

In the play, Esther is portrayed as a typical Jewish wife who is “incredibly warm, gregarious, loves family and having people over”. But there is another side to her as well, says Bentall.

“Underneath all that, she’s also very clever, strong-willed and if anyone hurts her family, she will fight to the death for them and what she believes in. She comes across as a really lovely, sweet woman, but cross her and she’ll
be incredibly tough.”

As for her love for husband Jakob, Bentall is clear that Esther not only looks up to him as “the most intelligent, brilliant man” capable of firing up others to support the communist cause, but she is also someone who is by no means the meek and subservient wife.

“Any time he has any doubt, Esther is the one who convinces him that he’s doing the right thing. It seems like he’s at the forefront, but actually she’s the puppet master pulling all the strings.”

More than 60 years after they were executed, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert, continue to campaign on their parents’ behalf. With the emergence of supporting evidence, they accept that Julius was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, although not of atomic spying, and assert that Ethel was only generally aware of his activities. They argue their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted and should be posthumously exonerated.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, as portrayed in the play,

Bentall agrees that “no one knows the exact truth”, but adds that the play does throw up questions over whether they should have
faced execution.

“Their punishment was so extreme people thought they were being used as scapegoats,” adds Bentall. “It was completely out of proportion to what they had been caught doing, particularly Ethel, and there are many who believe they were used as publicity by the American Government as a show of strength during the Cold War.”

Alongside misplaced fears, paranoia and a battle of ideologies, the play also looks at how nuclear weapons have been used as a consistent threat by warring governments – something Bentall sees as being just as pertinent to today’s world, as that of the one inhabited by the Rosenbergs more than six decades ago.

“We now know so much more about these weapons and yet we still fight over whether they could be a good thing, which is crazy,” asserts Bentall. “We never seem to learn anything. It really does feel at times like history is just repeating itself.”

  •   The Rubenstein Kiss runs from 14 March to 13 April at Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway. Details: southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

 

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