It is 1953: American-Jewish couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair for allegedly telling the Soviet Union of state secrets. James Phillips, in his 2005 award winning play, takes dramatic license to tell the fascinating story of their family, their politics and to question our moral compass.
Devil You Know Theatre Company’s production opens to a sparse stage with a centre piece of a table and chairs, helping to intertwine the interconnecting stories of the Rosenbergs (renamed by Phillips as the Rubensteins), and their son Matthew. In the 1970s, Matthew, played with fervor by Dario Coates, begins to have faith in his idea that his parents were wrongly convicted when he meets history teacher Anna, (an exceptional professional debut by Katie Eldred). As Matthew and Anna unearth the past; the conspiracy unfolds.
At times, the beliefs of the Rubensteins can feel conflicting and confusing – as they ultimately choose ‘ideas’ over their son. However, in our current constitutional landscape, their belief system outweighing their sense of family has a sense of credibility about it. In her extraordinary performance, Ruby Bentall, of Poldark fame, helps to make quixotic Esther Rubenstein a more well-rounded character; as she goes from singing house wife to gusty impassioned idealist. Likewise, her chemistry with the headstrong Jakob Rubenstein, (played with intensity by Henry Profitt), alludes to the sensuality behind the infamous photo of the real Rosenberg’s kiss in the back of the police van.
Collectively, the cast produce all encompassing performances; meaning nobody is a clear cut hero or villain. Profitt and Sean Rigby, (as Esther’s brother David), cultivate sympathy for their characters – even with their questionable decisions.
Despite the performances, there are still dips in the pacing – the length of the piece sitting at 2hr40 – and certain lines of the dialogue can feel a little cliché. Likewise, if you’re not completely clued up on the history, then there is even more to wrap your head around than just the challenging questions at play. However, this thought-provoking piece is not only a history lesson, but a lesson in what it means to be part of a family and the consequences of having strong political beliefs – a lesson that is never more valid than in today’s political climate.