Part of the Conspiracy Season at Nottingham Playhouse, James Phillips’ high-intensity drama is based on the real-life story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communist idealists executed in McCarthyist America in 1953 for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
It is set against the grubby backdrop of a mushroom cloud and punctuated with soaring arias from Puccini. Knowing the inevitable outcome of the story for Jakob and Esther Rubenstein makes it hard to watch at times. Their feverish, prolonged and overwhelmingly clumsy embrace after two years of physical separation is the most highly charged moment in the play, a physical expression of all the moral dilemmas it poses. Are ideas more important than lives? If you have to make a choice, who do you betray?
Katherine Manners plays the opera-loving Esther with an energy, mischief and joyfulness that yields to fierce bravery and defiance. It is a consummate performance. Joe Coen is the intense and studious Jakob, burdened with the responsibility of being a survivor. His interrogation by the clever and confident lawyer, Paul Cranmer (Cornell S John), is masterly in its rising dynamic and ultimate choice: “Confess and live. That’s the deal.”
Nicely paced, there is a Montague and Capulet element to the story in the meeting, in 1976, of two bright and appealing young people, Matthew (Simon Haines) and Anna (Gillian Saker). Mark Field is the ebullient and defensive David Girshfeld and Ellie Burrow the gentle Rachel Liebermann. A searing evening, with resonance of course for our own troubled times.