As the title suggests, playwright Nicholas Wright makes clever use of eight different hotel rooms as the background setting for this story about race, politics and relationships in mid-20th Century America.
At the heart of the drama, based on real events, is the love triangle between actors Paul Robeson (of Ol’ Man River fame), Uta Hagen and her husband Jose Ferrer while on a coast to coast theatre tour of Othello after a successful run in New York.
Robeson was the first black American to play the title role on Broadway – opposite Hagen’s Desdemona and Ferrer’s Iago.
This being 1940s America, it was unusual to have an actor of colour in a leading role playing to racially integrated audiences across the country.
8 Hotels opens in 1944 with a scene between Hagen (Emma Paetz), and Ferrer (Ben Curer) in which her challenge over his control of the marital finances hints at the faultlines in their relationship.
The focus then switches to Robeson (Tory Kittles), who has been given a room in the hotel that “doesn’t exist”. It transpires that the hotel has “never had a negro guest”. In an act of protest, the trio of actors decide to leave and find alternative accommodation.
The only other character in the play is Othello’s English director Margaret Webster (Pandora Colin) through whom we learn of Ferrer’s infidelities with another actress in the cast.
The next scene then establishes that Hagen and Robeson are themselves having a fully-fledged affair.
Amidst the racial inequality and infidelity on display, other interesting details to emerge concern Robeson’s own political leanings (at one point he speaks of the Soviet Union as “the land of the free”) and his admission that his “acting’s not too hot”. On more than one occasion we witness Hagen’s attempts to teach her leading man how to emote from the heart.
Paetz is excellent as Hagen, filling her character with genuine passion and anger. The sparks of sexual tension between Hagen and Robeson flicker brightly through almost every scene. (Wright notes in the programme that some of the events in the play are based on interviews with Uta Hagen conducted in the 1980s.)
There are strong performance too from Curer and Kittles, particularly in a tense scene where Robeson and Ferrer play chess – the game acting as a metaphor for their intense rivalry over Hagen.
The hotel room set, designed by Rob Howell, wonderfully evokes the decor of the era while the video projections that accompany each scene change give a great sense of both the changing locations and seismic shifts in the politics of the time.
Richard Eyre’s production feels strongest when it foregrounds its human relationships. Some of the play’s momentum is lost towards the end as the story jumps forward several years to examine the after effects of the McCarthy-ist communist witch-hunts, but this world premiere takes an engaging and original approach in its examination of a turbulent period of American history.
8 Hotels is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 24 August.