8 Hotels offers absorbing portrait of Paul Robeson at Chichester Festival Theatre

Tory Kittles as Paul Robeson Photo by Manuel Harlan
Tory Kittles as Paul Robeson Photo by Manuel Harlan

REVIEW: 8 Hotels, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until August 24

Tory Kittles gives us a compelling Paul Robeson in Nicholas Wright’s new play – a fascinating piece which charts racial, political and personal histories across a dozen years through the eight hotel rooms of the title.

We are in complex murky waters. Robeson, ever the activist, is daring to be a black Othello on a 1944 ground-breaking coast-to-coast tour of segregationist America. The risks to his safety are immense. But he’s living dangerously on the home front too, conducting an affair with his Desdemona, the brilliant young actress Uta Hagen – under the knowing eyes of his Iago, her husband, the Broadway star José Ferrer, who is similarly active elsewhere. The situation is explosive all round – and as the tour progresses, life imitates art increasingly, to the point that (Iago-like) Ferrer goads Robeson into (Othello-like) violence against his Desdemona, all the play’s jealousies infecting what’s apparently happening for real.

As a viewer, it’s difficult not to wonder whether the parallels are just a little too conveniently neat, but there’s no doubting their effectiveness as drama in a web of relationships ever more fiery, each of the threesome driven by their own sense of entitlement, mostly of each other.

Pandora Colin plays the fourth piece in the picture, the show’s director, with considerable skill; however, you can’t help wondering whether dropping the character entirely would have given us an even tauter piece, concentrating exclusively on the big three, which is where the sparks are flying.

Ben Cura is excellent as Ferrer, difficult to like, but with charisma to spare; Emma Paetz is equally impressive as Hagen, incensed at her husband’s total financial control and deeply hurt by Robeson, however much she realises theirs is hardly a situation in which she can claim him exclusively.

The star of the show, quite rightly, though is Kittles, giving us a Robeson who will leave you wanting to find out more, a man determined to use acting to further his civil rights message, an actor who is consequently wooden until he finds his passion, a deeply flawed man who can’t let go of his Russian ideals despite the 1950s Soviet horrors – and ultimately a man whose belief in communism, a decade after that fateful Othello tour, leaves him passport-less, depressed and nearly broken.

Kittles carries the role beautifully – director Richard Eyre getting the best out of all four actors in a piece which is all the more effective for playing straight through, an hour and 40 minutes without an interval. Maybe if there is a fault in the play it’s that in that final hotel room, the exchanges don’t seem quite as natural as they did earlier. There is rather too much filling us in and telling us what we need to know for the conversation to have the flow of those earlier rooms.

Against that, 8 Hotels is that rare thing, a play which is actually enhanced by the use of video projections. Clearly, largely, they are intended to cover the minimal scene changes, but the sense of the era they give enriches the whole experience – unlike those awful projections on the main-house stage in Plenty earlier this summer.