Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre – until 24 August 2019
In 1944 the adventurous British director Peggy Webster cast the first black Othello in the USA, where for a white woman even to walk with a black man still attracted spitting hostility. Her Moor was Paul Robeson, already a star for his singing, acting and eloquent civil rights rallies.
After a Broadway run the four toured as far south as they dared to mixed audiences, finding hotels often reluctant to accommodate a “negro”. Nicholas Wright’s sharp play imagines that tour, and its aftermath in the uneasy years of the McCarthyite search for Communist sympathisers. For Robeson was not only a black civil rights hero, but passionately pro-Soviet, believing it better than the racist USA.
American Tory Kittles is Robeson, showing a man vividly irresistible in his energy and – at first – his dangerously high self confidence. Uta Hagen (the playwright worked with her, 50 years later) was Desdemona; her husband Joe Ferrer was Iago. But on tour Uta was sleeping with Robeson, Joe himself straying, and the director uneasily keeping an eye on them.
As they progress between hotels the tangle becomes not only sexual but racial, political and professional. Robeson is too stubborn, angry and stiffly himself to be either a good actor or a fair lover. Uta and Joe both have the quality of great actors, both a brilliance and a flaw, as they seek out their own emotional extremes and use them on stage. By the end all three have, despite basic decency, both betrayed and been betrayed.
Under Richard Eyre’s taut direction we get a chain of brief scenes: some funny, some moving, some cracklingly tense (a chess match between the men, black Paul and Puerto-Rican Joe, reveals envies and social insecurities almost too painfully).
One night in Seattle Robeson, charged with his own promiscuity, turns blame round and vents violent fury on Uta. Emma Paetz gives a vivid, flaming performance as his lover. As Joe, Ben Cura elegantly changes from an eager young actor irritably outshone by Robeson to reaching the top himself and showing that he’ll play dirty to stay there. Despite the intimacy and speed of the play – a tight 105 minutes – you feel you have seen an epic.