Iago only suspected it. Broadway star José Ferrer knows it: his wife is having an affair with his friend, and they’re barely bothering to conceal it. To complicate matters, his spouse is the actress Uta Hagen, his pal is the singer and political campaigner Paul Robeson (of Ol’ Man River fame), and the trio are trapped on the road in a production of Othello. Stricken with jealousy, José finds himself heading for the mirror. What does he look like, and how can he use this to enhance his Iago?
As with his Olivier-winning Vincent in Brixton, Nicholas Wright’s new play is based on real events. It is well-trodden territory, the blur between ‘true’ and ‘phony’ in the lives of actors. But Wright is also interested in the huge tensions that were present in post-war America during the time this landmark mixed-race production of Othello was touring. When José turns the tables to sow seeds of jealousy in Paul, he plays on the realities of slavery and segregation, as well as the suggestion of bedsprings through the thin hotel walls. His revenge strips his rival of occupation, reputation and passport in one McCarthy hearing.
Despite engaging performances, Richard Eyre’s production doesn’t quite capture the crackling intensity of this real-life love triangle, or deliver on the darker aspects of its eroticism. American screen actor Tory Kittles isn’t imposing enough a stage presence as Paul. But Wright’s clever decision to confine the action to a string of hotel rooms is brilliantly served by Rob Howell’s period design, which could well see the play renamed 8 Bedspreads.