Nicholas Wright’s compelling new play is inspired by a historical fact: that when Paul Robeson played Othello during a six-month US tour in 1944, he was having an affair with his Desdemona, Uta Hagen, who was married to his Iago, José Ferrer. But, while Wright’s play is about the interaction of art and life, it also reminds us of the segregation laws in postwar America and of the heavy price paid by Robeson for his espousal of the Soviet Union.
Wright is not the first person to see how Shakespeare’s play mirrors reality. In a 1947 George Cukor movie, A Double Life, Ronald Colman’s Othello, in a fit of jealous fury, almost strangles his Desdemona on stage. There’s a similar moment here – actually the weakest in the play – when Robeson attempts to smother Hagen in a Seattle hotel room. But, for the most part, Wright explores with great subtlety the complexities of an infernal triangle: a chess game between Robeson and Ferrer turns into a test of wills and Ferrer exacts his revenge when he later names Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Committee. As well as charting an affair, the play chillingly shows how even an iconic figure like Robeson was subject to the punitive restrictions affecting people of colour.
A lot is packed into 100 minutes and Richard Eyre’s production whips the action along speedily. The American actor, Tory Kittles, catches perfectly Robeson’s mix of charisma, courage and cowardice: he conveys the sense of a great man, but one with his fair share of personal flaws. Emma Paetz wittily proves that inside Hagen the actor lurked a fine teacher: one of the best scenes shows her encouraging Robeson to inject his private passion into his performance as Othello. There is good support from Ben Cura as the cuckolded Ferrer, who was having an affair of his own with the production’s Bianca, and from Pandora Colin as a director determined to keep the show on the road. But the signal virtue of Wright’s play is that it explores not just the emotional intricacies of backstage life but also the racial divisions scarring the American nation.
• At the Minerva, Chichester, until 24 August.