There’s probably not many people left alive that remember the controversial coast to coast US tour of Othello from 1944.
It was remarkable for two reasons. Singer and political firebrand, Paul ‘Ol’ Man River’ Robeson was playing the lead and, as a black man, he was sharing the stage with a white, Desdemona.
Robeson proved to be no great shakes as a classical actor – “too wooden and monotonous”, according to his director, Peggy Webster.
But the production was noted for Robeson’s affair with his leading lady, Uta Hagen, despite his close friendship with Uta’s husband, matinee idol José Ferrer, who was playing Iago.
While it seemed acceptable for Ferrer to play around, an affair between Hagen and Robeson, was scandalous.
Nicholas Wright, whose path has crossed that of a much older Hagen, uses the tour to examine the trio’s increasingly fraught relationship against a background of an incendiary period in American history, for his new play, 8 Hotels, which opened tonight at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.
It’s not, he stresses, an accurate record of the trip, more ‘inspired by’ with much of the action invented for dramatic purposes.
But this very human story – the affairs, the cuckolding and the devastating effect of one man’s revenge – are played out during an era that stretches from pre-war bigotry, prejudice and segregation, through to McCarthyism and the ’50s backlash against Communism.
Robeson was the first black actor to play Othello in a major production but the casting caused massive problems.
While it may have been acceptable on Broadway, a nationwide tour – missing the Deep South (naturally) – still ran into major difficulties caused by casting a black actor.
Airlines and hotels refused to acknowledge Robeson even though he was a huge singing star. Plane tickets were withdrawn, hotels were suddenly full. It was par for the course in 1944 America.
The situation is made worse by the increasing tensions among the cast. Ferrer is having a fling with one of the minor cast members while his wife has fallen in love with Robeson.
As the tour progresses the trio dance around each other, refusing to admit the terrible reality of their situation.
Wright’s play, beautifully directed by Richard Eyre, looks beyond the ill-fated tour, taking the story to more than a decade later, when all three have suffered mixed fortunes.
8 Hotels is an intriguing and fascinating play not least because most of us have only a slight inkling at most about the lives of these three icons of mid-twentieth century showbiz.
The shabby treatment of Paul Robeson is, of course, shameful, but nothing we haven’t heard before about other black characters living through the period
And Wright’s repeated use of the modern, politically correct, phrase ‘a person of colour’, does jar with the authentic feel of the piece.
But it’s a well told story, delivered with style – considering it is played out in a series of grubby hotel rooms.
Eyre uses the wings of the stage to roll vintage footage of race riots and street-life, in-between the scenes, while backstage staff rush on to swap one grotty bedspread for another as the Othello tour progresses.
And, as a preamble to the start of the next scene, one of the cast of four delivers a monologue to the audience, filling us in on the latest tortuous and tangled twist of their relationship.
American import, Tory Kittles from TV shows like True Detective, Colony, CSI:Miami and House, looks confident as Robeson, taking him from an assured political campaigner and singer to a burned out wreck whose career was destroyed by the McCarthy era.
Relative newcomer, Emma Paetz, creates a very animated Uta Hagen, arms constantly flailing this way and that, her emotions worn very much on her sleeve, as she battles sexual inequality.
None of the cast bear any resemblance to the characters they are playing, but that’s fine. We’re used to that.
But there are a couple of moments – between Ben Cura’s Ferrer and Robeson – which reveal how complicated and close their relationship was.
During a game of chess the men are doing more than playing a game, both looking for weakness and supremacy in the other’s moves.
Later, they are forced to share a bed, and Ferrer’s vulnerability is cruelly exploited by his love rival.
You don’t have to know anything about these three characters to be enthralled by this glimpse into America’s tawdry past.
Book yourself a ticket to 8 Hotels, running in the Minerva Theatre until August 24.
Sex, racial tension and a country’s turbulent past, are played out during a series of encounters in Nicholas Wright’s intriguing 8 Hotels.