Too many themes, too many histrionics. These are the problems that dog Nicholas Wright’s patchily intriguing play. It centres on an affair between pioneering black actor Paul Robeson and rising star Uta Hagen — Google them, millennials — during a tour of Othello across segregated, wartime America in 1944.
It’s about racial and gender politics, love, betrayal and truth, among other things. Richard Eyre’s production covers 20 years in eight hotel rooms and 100 minutes, and is heavy with exposition and lumbering parallels with today’s America. There are stirring moments from US performer Tory Kittles as Robeson and relative newcomer Emma Paetz as Hagen but a lot of over-emoting and arm-waving.
Throughout the tour, Robeson is attacked for his anti-racist, pro-Soviet views and shunned in hotels. He also apparently shags everything that moves. Oh, and did I mention that Hagen’s Puerto Rican husband José Ferrer (Ben Cura) is playing Iago in the show, and screwing another cast member? The life of the fourth character, British lesbian director Peggy Webster (Pandora Colin), seems positively tame. She’s mostly there to fill in the narrative gaps, anyway.
The source material is great grist for drama. Robeson was a towering figure — an academic and sporting star at college, an emotive singer and orator with radical views, whose affairs with white women were scandalous. In Wright’s version, he is a wooden actor who couldn’t find passion onstage.
Hagen is here a force of nature constrained by convention and by men. Both lovers find truth after a chilling moment when he is moved by hypocritical jealousy to assault her. A bold thing to put on stage right now.
Kittles has a nice, physically precise take on Robeson’s personality, and ages beautifully. Paetz has flashes of raw brilliance. But it feels like Eyre is trying to recall the acting style of a previous era: there’s way too much gesticulation, and Cura’s eyes roll like marbles on a boat deck.
At the end we know the paths Robeson, Hagen and Webster will follow but Ferrer has long since left the stage. He was the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar, was given the National Medal of the Arts by Ronald Reagan, and was put on a stamp in 2012.
Until August 24 (01243 781312, cft.org.uk).