With life imitating art, an actor playing Iago is jealous of the love between the couple performing the parts of Othello and Desdemona (though she is actually his own wife) and takes a terrible revenge on the former. You couldn’t write the script. Well, Nicholas Wright has, in his new play 8 Hotels, which is set against the background of the ground-breaking New York production of Othello that toured North America in 1944–45, and then the post-war anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunt.
Not only was this the longest-running Shakespeare production on Broadway – a record that still stands – but it was the first time a black actor (the famous singer Paul Robeson) had played the Moor with an otherwise all-white cast. His real-life affair with his on-stage wife Uta Hagen was of course taboo in segregation-era America. Not to mention infuriating her husband José Ferrer (who was himself sleeping with the actress playing Bianca!), who, Iago-like, helped to bring about Robeson’s downfall by denouncing him to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
It’s a fascinating slice of American theatrical and political history, which Wright has richly mined for its interconnections. But he tries to pack in too much in a rather unfocused work, which despite the potential of the subject-matter lacks consistent dramatic intensity. He has had the ingenious idea of setting the play in eight hotel rooms during the tour and afterwards (all played out on Rob Howell’s single, bed-dominated set). Scene-opening titles and video projections of moving trains and city scenes chart the jumps in time and journey across the continent. The action takes place over 12 years in which we see the shifting relations and fluctuating fortunes of the three main characters (plus director Margaret Webster). Richard Eyre’s commendably swift-paced production lasts an unbroken 100 minutes.
At the start of each scene, one of the characters (except, strangely, Robeson) delivers a short monologue straight to the audience, not only voicing their thoughts but giving some context to the drama. Occasionally there is a bit too much exposition, and sometimes exchanges of information between characters are not convincing. But Wright offers some interesting insights into the triangular relationship of actors who have an ambivalent approach to truth.
Ferrer’s first reaction on finding out about his wife’s infidelity is to look in the mirror and work out how he can use his jealous feelings in his performance. Hagen vainly tries to instil more passion in Robeson’s somewhat wooden acting, but later gets more than she bargains for when, in response to her anger at his sleeping with other women, he grabs her throat and starts to smother her as in the final act of Othello (a not very subtle allusion). She tells him subsequently she uses this genuine fear she felt then when playing Blanche DuBois in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire after the war.
Racism rears its ugly head when we hear about the discrimination Robeson encounters when booking flights or hotel rooms (even though the tour does not venture into the Southern states). But it is his political activism that gets him into most trouble, specifically his support for the Soviet Union, used against him during the post-war Red Scare. Wright exaggerates the impact of Ferrer’s betrayal (Robeson was already blacklisted, with his passport blocked), while Robeson’s mental and physical breakdown are brought forward in time. But this does work well dramatically.
Tory Kittles may not quite project Robeson’s famously charismatic physical presence, but he delivers a nuanced performance as a flawed idealist fighting against the odds. He conveys the self-justifying evasiveness of the married serial philanderer and also his moral equivocation over communist tyranny, while suggesting his courage in fighting injustice – as shown by his radical re-wording of his signature song ‘Ol Man River’ at the end. Emma Paetz persuasively plays the feisty Hagen, inconsistent in her feelings on fidelity, with signs of the great drama teacher to come. Ben Cura is impressive as the broodingly duplicitous Ferrer (who went on to become the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar), whose pride seems to be riled not so much by being cuckolded as by Robeson’s brazenness. And Pandora Colin is the calmly pragmatic Webster who finds out what is going on but is determined to keep the show on the road.
8 Hotels is on at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 24 August. More info here.