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Nicholas Wright, of Vincent in Brixton and Mrs Klein fame, has taken on another real life story by exploring the intriguing love triangle which developed between three legendary names in American theatre during a now famous US theatrical tour in 1944.
The hook is that their story mirrors the plot of Othello, the play they were touring. This was a landmark production in that the Moor was played by the great black singing star Paul Robeson, the first time an African American star was allowed to play the lead in a high profile tour. While this staunchly liberal cast and their director insisted on unsegregated audiences, and that their co-star receive a hotel room of similar standard to themselves, the play illustrates the constant daily indignities Robeson had to endure from every service industry.
Iago was Jose Ferrer, the Puerto Rican born star who by then was making a name for himself on Broadway and by 1950 had also won an Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac. At the time Ferrer was also married to Uta Hagen, who played a memorable Desdemona. She would go on to become a legendary acting teacher (specialising in The Method) and a Broadway star in her own right including originating the role of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Across 8 hotel rooms in 8 different cities (it could also be called 8 awful bedspreads thanks to designer Rob Howell) we witness Ferrer straying from his marriage, Hagen falling head over heels for Robeson and Ferrer eventually turning the tables on Robeson by sowing the seeds of jealousy by deftly insinuating, as Iago did, that this woman was continuing to be unfaithful to him with her husband.
While on the surface they appeared a tightly knit trio of relaxed bohemians Wright slowly examines how jealousy can run far and deep. Within a few short years Ferrer had named not just Robeson and but also their British director Peggy Webster to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a betrayal that would cost Robeson his passport, his livelihood and his freedom. Ferrer's rather feeble defence was that the political leanings of the two were widely known and Robeson in particular had been famous for his pro-Soviet speeches (which had led to riots at many of his concerts) and so this was no great secret.
Running 1hr 40 without interval, director Richard Eyre, ably assisted by Andrej Goulding's video projections, gives the piece a dynamism but it is ultimately rather too fragmented. The scenes are not really long enough to engage us fully. The decision to try and explain Robeson's complex political life to a modern audience at the same time as recounting the emotional complexities of a love triangle is perhaps too tall an order. It reminds us that there is a great miniseries to be made about Robeson's long and extraordinary life. (Hello, Ava Du Vernay where are you?).
The quartet of actors here give it their best but long slabs of exposition make it harder for them to engage us emotionally with these fascinating characters. Ben Cura, in a solid performance, fares best and also has matinee idol looks which Ferrer would have envied.
Emma Paetz manages to capture the vital energy and fierce intelligence of Hagen, who was a woman ahead of her time. She is riveting in a scene with Robeson in Seattle where an incident occurs which would alter their relationship forever.
US TV star Tory Kittles (Colony and True Detective) has the biggest mountain to climb as Robeson. He has the charisma, if not the girth, of the great star but his Robeson ends up as rather unsympathetic. A complex man enduring endless trials, but we don't really get under his skin here.
Pandora Colin provides strong support as the fascinating Peggy Webster, the LGBT British born director who made a splash in the US theatre in the '30s and '40s until she was destroyed by the communist witch hunts.
In the end, for a piece about actors, this rather literary piece is curiously lacking in dramatic heat. For fans of US theatrical history though, it is a must see.