BWW Review: 8 HOTELS, Minerva Theatre
Uta is trapped in her marriage to José - they get along professionally, but the love has gone. While José carries on (somewhat half-heartedly) with the production's Bianca, Uta is transfixed by Paul, the charisma still there at 46, even if the acting is now very much secondary to the activism. Uta thinks she might be the one, but, of course, she is just a one amongst many for a man who searched for love, but consoled himself in lust. That so smart a cookie as Uta didn't see this feels unlikely, but love is blind I suppose.
Racial prejudice confines Paul (literally) to hotel closets, buses instead of flights, bars instead of restaurants. It's a reminder of how the same black Americans who fought for The Stars and Stripes on D-Day and in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, were subjected to both the overt discrimination of the Jim Crow Laws of The South, but also endless inconveniences, relentless indignities, the constant threat of the putdown or slur in in the soi disant enlightened Yankee states.
All the while, every night, the trio must reach into themselves for the anger, jealousy and madness conjured by Shakespeare for his Othello, Iago and Desdemona. That Robeson proved to be a bit phoney (much to the chagrin of Uta, already showing signs of the committed teacher she became) is hardly a surprise. He had spent a lifetime managing anger and (wholly justified) jealousy. After all that suppression, such emotions could not be summoned artistically, but only emerge pathologically, as they do twice in this play.
As you will have gathered, Wright packs his play with intense passions, alleviated only by the occasional appearance of wise old head Peggy Webster, the production's director, who sees it all and has seen it all before anyway. Pandora Colin gives a nicely judged performance, a little respite in 100 minutes all through, speaking more to us than the characters.
The principals in the ménage-a-trois are all excellent. Ben Cura insinuates Jose's seething sense of resentment at Paul's easy mesmerising of Uta and how a surface amiability and decency masked a gnawing anxiety that was given full voice in the revenge he visited upon Robeson years later.
Tory Kittles takes a while to work his way into the role. He doesn't quite have the enormous presence (physically and socially) that Robeson used to fill any space in which he moved, but Kittles is tremendous in later scenes when Robeson's vulnerabilities and failings are revealed, when the man breaks under a system that has sought that outcome for decades - getting its pound of flesh at last.
Emma Paetz's energy lights up the dingy rooms (designer, Rob Howell, showing a fine eye) as Uta, wise, girlish, cruel, sexy, conniving, victimised and successful. Paetz is given a fine role and makes the most of it - a nascent star playing a bona fide star.
8 Hotels is intelligent entertainment that does what this kind of play does when it all works. It shows us an entirely authentic, fully realised world that is not ours - but in which we see our own. And, like José looking in the mirror to see how he has been changed by another slight, we might not like what we see.
Photo Manuel Harlan