Paul Robeson’s Othello: How stage passion spilled into real life

Paul Robeson was one of the most famous African Americans of his time, known for his acting and his talent as a singer. But his career was hit hard by his radical left-wing sympathies. Nicholas Wright’s new play 8 Hotels recalls the controversial politics but also Robeson’s relationship with actress Uta Hagen.

Wright says there are two things which obsess him – theatre and politics.

“And here was a story about real people involved in both – so I knew I had to write it.

“The idea began to develop years ago when I met Uta Hagen – a fantastically good American actress who was also an important teacher of acting. In 1995, late on in her career, she did a tour of a play I’d written called Mrs Klein, which started in San Francisco.

“After the show I was eating with her in an old hotel and it was so obvious that Uta was in an ecstatic state of happiness. I realised that decades earlier she’d stayed in the same hotel during her affair with Paul Robeson. So that was the beginning of my interest and it’s a love story at its centre.”

Hagen was 20 years younger than her co-star. Both were already married – she to the actor José Ferrer, who also features as a character in 8 Hotels. Ironically the play they were touring around America was one of the great studies of sexual jealousy – Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1943 Robeson became the first black American to play the title role on Broadway. (He’d already played it in London in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft.)

In 8 Hotels, Hagen is played by Canadian actress Emma Paetz, who also stars in the new TV series Pennyworth. She knew a little about Hagen but mainly as an influential teacher.

“In America most aspiring actors know her books and have probably read them. And of course she’d been the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I only really knew that teaching perspective and she never had a film career – so I find young British actors don’t always know her.

“But what matters are the shifting dynamics between Paul and Uta and her husband José Ferrer – it’s what makes the play so good to act in. You think it’s a particular kind of romance but then you realise the way Nicholas has written it there’s more to play as well.

“There are huge things talked about such as inter-racial relationships and racism and the political persecution in America in the McCarthy era.

“Lots of those themes find an echo today. But what I really love is that it’s all filtered through intimate, very personal conversations with just a small cast. It’s very passionate.”

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