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Paul Robeson’s Othello: How stage passion spilled into real life

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Chichester Festival Theatre

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The play’s poster shows an archive image of Uta Hagen, Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer together

Paul Robeson was one of the most famous African Americans of his time, known for his acting and his talent as a singer. But his career was hit hard by his radical left-wing sympathies. Nicholas Wright’s new play 8 Hotels recalls the controversial politics but also Robeson’s relationship with actress Uta Hagen.

Wright says there are two things which obsess him – theatre and politics.

“And here was a story about real people involved in both – so I knew I had to write it.

“The idea began to develop years ago when I met Uta Hagen – a fantastically good American actress who was also an important teacher of acting. In 1995, late on in her career, she did a tour of a play I’d written called Mrs Klein, which started in San Francisco.

“After the show I was eating with her in an old hotel and it was so obvious that Uta was in an ecstatic state of happiness. I realised that decades earlier she’d stayed in the same hotel during her affair with Paul Robeson. So that was the beginning of my interest and it’s a love story at its centre.”

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Manuel Harlan

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Tory Kittles takes on the role of Paul Robeson

Hagen was 20 years younger than her co-star. Both were already married – she to the actor José Ferrer, who also features as a character in 8 Hotels. Ironically the play they were touring around America was one of the great studies of sexual jealousy – Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1943 Robeson became the first black American to play the title role on Broadway. (He’d already played it in London in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft.)

In 8 Hotels, Hagen is played by Canadian actress Emma Paetz, who also stars in the new TV series Pennyworth. She knew a little about Hagen but mainly as an influential teacher.

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Getty Images

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Paul Robeson “wasn’t really an actor,” says writer Nicholas Wright

“In America most aspiring actors know her books and have probably read them. And of course she’d been the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I only really knew that teaching perspective and she never had a film career – so I find young British actors don’t always know her.

“But what matters are the shifting dynamics between Paul and Uta and her husband José Ferrer – it’s what makes the play so good to act in. You think it’s a particular kind of romance but then you realise the way Nicholas has written it there’s more to play as well.

“There are huge things talked about such as inter-racial relationships and racism and the political persecution in America in the McCarthy era.

“Lots of those themes find an echo today. But what I really love is that it’s all filtered through intimate, very personal conversations with just a small cast. It’s very passionate.”

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Manuel Harlan

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Emma Paetz was drawn to the role of Uta Hagen because of the “passion” in the script

The production doesn’t make use of the many recordings of Robeson singing. American actor Tory Kittles has to evoke him without seeming to impersonate the hugely distinctive Robeson sound.

“His was a once in a generation voice but I’m not interested in trying to sound like him on stage. That big, booming voice was what he used singing. If you go online and hear him interviewed it’s very different. What matters now are his ideas.

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Getty Images

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Uta Hagen’s skill was one of the inspirations behind director Richard Eyre’s love of the theatre

“I think people in America know less about Paul than they did in the 1950s: maybe he’s been erased a little. American culture and civil rights activism changed a lot in the decade after that and I think he was no longer a big part of that conversation.

“He wrote that, when he went to Soviet Russia, it was the first time he felt like a full human being. He denied being a Communist Party member but some Americans despised him as a Soviet stooge. He insisted that as an American he was free to voice support for any cause.

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Manuel Harlan

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Richard Eyre is an acclaimed director of theatre, film and TV and was the artistic director of the National Theatre

“For most of the 1950s his passport was taken away – a huge blow for a man who made his income mainly in Europe. He went from $100,000 a year to making $6,000. But through it all he remained a warrior for humanity.”

The play’s director Richard Eyre says “one of the reasons Nick’s script is so topical is that it’s about identity politics and the nature of authority”.

“But it’s also about the relationships involved – José Ferrer as much as the others. It’s about the nature of acting too.

“I saw Uta Hagen on stage in 1964 playing Martha in Virginia Woolf. It remains probably the best stage performance I have ever seen. It was absolutely incandescent and I’d never seen acting like it. She was one of the catalysts which pushed me to think that the theatre’s the most extraordinary medium to work in.

“One of the great things about Nick’s play is that it suggests what made her a great actress, even though she’s quite young when we meet her. She was able to communicate a lucid rationality and combine it with an intense passion on stage.”

The script suggests Robeson’s performance as Othello was never a match for Hagen as Desdemona.

“I think the truth is that he wasn’t really an actor,” says Wright. “There’s a sort of mentality that you need to have a natural acting talent and he just didn’t have it. He didn’t want to step into the shoes of someone else or perhaps he just couldn’t.

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Manuel Harlan

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Tory Kittles as Paul Robeson squares up to Ben Cura as José Ferrer

“He was a magnificent figure on a stage. He looked and sounded wonderful but it was always monumental.

“One of the reasons he wanted to do Othello was to show a black man who was dignified and in a position of authority with a full emotional life. To some audiences the very idea of a black man playing a love scene with a white actress was scandalous.”

Kittles admires the courage of their 1940s Othello. “They dared raise the topic of inter-racial love at a time and in places where it was taboo.

“The love between Uta and Paul is fascinating but also there’s a love between Paul and José. It’s a powerful story and at one level the play’s about the power of theatre. That production was a taboo-breaker around the topic of race and it helped change the conversation in America about inter-racial relationships.

“We need reminding that there were people who stood up, people who shouted out about things that were no good in society and which needed to change. That’s one of the reasons why theatre and storytelling exist.”

8 Hotels is at the Chichester Theatre from 1 – 24 August.


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Coronavirus: Artist adds Queen in face mask to collection

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Emelie Hryhoruk's artwork of the QueenImage copyright
Emelie Hryhoruk

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Emelie Hryhoruk says her portrait of the Queen “highlights vulnerabilities alongside powerful traits”

An artist who started making colourful, pop-art inspired works to deal with post-natal depression has added a painting of the Queen wearing a face mask to her series during lockdown.

Emelie Hryhoruk said the picture, called We Will Meet Again, “highlights vulnerabilities alongside powerful traits” and “shows everyone is vulnerable no matter who they are”.

She is offering free paints and other art materials to families living near her studio in Corsham, Wiltshire, to help them deal with feeling scared during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Emelie Hryhoruk

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Ms Hryhoruk created this piece, entitled I Am Strong, while dealing with post-natal depression

“When I paint, I am fully absorbed in the moment and the feelings this promotes. On reflection, the process is what brought me out of my depression.

“No matter how dark your life is, the colour will always come back – the radiance of the colours I choose to work with lift me and instil positive feelings and calm.”

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Emelie Hryhoruk

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The paintings are a departure from the seascapes and yacht portraits she was producing before

Hryhoruk said she knew things were “not right” after the birth of her first son, Charlie, in 2009, and the feelings worsened after her second, Isaac, arrived in 2013. She said she “resented him” and fell into “dark times straight away”.

She said having post-natal depression left her feeling “lost, scared and angry” and led her to “throw down the brightest colours” to escape the “black cloud that was smothering me”.

When she drew a portrait of Wonder Woman after seeing the film, she saw her creation as “a reflection of my inner self – strong yet broken”.

“On that day I realised something had happened to me and that the black cloud had lifted enough to shed some light.”

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Emelie Hryhoruk

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Emelie was inspired to draw a portrait of Wonder Woman three years after her youngest son, Isaac, was born

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Over the next few years she sought counselling and help from Mind and the Samaritans, while creating The Empowered Collection.

The works, done using spray paint, have been exhibited at the home of Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason for his Open Garden Event, the Peacock Arts Trail, and the Saatchi Art Gallery.

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Emelie Hryhoruk

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Ms Hryhoruk shares her work on social media where she say the reaction “has been powerful”

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Emelie Hryhoruk

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Her work using art to raise awareness of mental health has led her to win a business award from Theo Paphitis

She has printed the series, which is a departure from the seascapes and yacht portraits she used to produce, on to T-shirts to raise money and awareness for charities including Mind and Wiltshire Hospice Dorothy House. Profits will also be donated to NHS Charities Together.

“I hope the [images] help people tap into their own inner superhero to find their strength,” she said.



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Prince Charles issues warning on the arts

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Prince CharlesImage copyright
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The prince is patron of the Royal Opera and president of the Royal Ballet amongst other positions

The Prince of Wales has raised concerns about how orchestras and theatres will survive the coronavirus crisis.

Many theatres and concert halls are struggling after closing their doors during lockdown, with no clear indication of when shows might resume,

Prince Charles said it was important to “find a way of keeping these orchestras and other arts bodies going”.

The prince, who is patron of dozens of arts institutions, noted they were of “enormous importance” to the economy.

“It’s absolutely crucial that they can come back twice as enthusiastic as before,” he said in an interview with Classic FM.

The heads of the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and the Southbank Centre have all warned they are facing financial collapse without additional government assistance due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Royal Opera House, of which Prince Charles is a patron, says it has seen 60% of house income fall away since the start of the crisis.

Worldwide impact

“They’re in terrible difficulties, of course, because how are they going to be able to restart?” said the prince.

“It is a very expensive art form, but it is crucial because it has such a worldwide impact… and so we have to find a way to make sure these marvellous people and organisations are going to survive through all this.”

The 71-year-old, who spent a week in self-isolation after testing positive for coronavirus in March, was talking to Alan Titchmarsh for a special Classic FM programme celebrating his life-long love of classical music.

He recalled his first visit to the Royal Opera House, in 1956, to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform The Fountain of Bakhchisarai in their debut tour of the UK.

“The music was unbelievably exciting,” he said. “It was all Tartar dancing and cracking the whips and leaping in the air and doing unbelievably energetic things, which only the Bolshoi could do.

“I was completely inspired by that… Which is why it’s so important, I think, for grandparents and other relations to take children at about the age of seven to experience some form of the arts in performance.”

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Getty Images

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The prince said he had helped choose the music for his son’s wedding to Kate Middleton

Elsewhere in the interview, the prince revealed he had helped Prince William curate the musical choices for his 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton.

“I love trying to organise some interesting, I hope, pieces of music for certain occasions…particularly for weddings if people want,” he said.

“I know my eldest son was quite understanding and was perfectly happy for me to suggest a few pieces for their wedding.”

“I hope that gave some people pleasure, but it’s rather fun having orchestras in for great occasions like that, and why not suggest a few pieces occasionally? Anyway… I do enjoy it.”

The 2011 Royal Wedding service included pieces from Bach, Elgar, Britten and Vaughan Williams.

Three of the pieces – Farewell to Stromness, Touch Her Soft Lips and Part and Romance for String Orchestra Op. 11 – were chosen specifically because they were played at the service of prayer and dedication at Charles and Camilla’s wedding in 2005.

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The Archers returns with a lockdown twist

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Annabel Dowler

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The coronavirus has given Kirsty, played by Annabel Dowler, a lucky escape.

The Archers will return to Radio 4 on Monday, with a “new style” forced upon the show by the coronavirus lockdown.

Large cast recordings with interaction between multiple characters have been scrapped in favour of monologues recorded at the actors’ homes.

“It might take a few episodes for listeners to get used to the new style”, said Charlotte Martin, who has plays busybody Susan Martin.

“It will be different [but] I think it will be enjoyable,” she said.

The rural drama resumes at 19:00 BST on Radio 4, after a three-week break in which classic episodes kept listeners in touch with the residents of Ambridge.

The first voice to be heard in the “lockdown era” will be Tim Bentinck, who plays David Archer.

The actor said he was “incredibly proud” to be pioneering the new format.

“As from Monday, the story of the now-virus-hit Ambridge will be told from the minds of the village characters, in a way that has never been heard in all its sixty-nine years,” he wrote on Twitter.

For the first time, listeners will get to hear what the characters “really think”, he continued.

“As actors, we’re always after the sub-text – what we say is not necessarily what we mean. Now, what we think is not necessarily what we say!”

Although the characters will be subject to the same restrictions as the rest of the UK, the plot won’t focus solely on coronavirus – with upcoming episodes featuring storylines about Tracy and Harrison competing to become captain of the village cricket team, and a minor emergency caused by a broken down forage harvester.

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Tim Bentinck is recording his dialogue in a cupboard under the stairs, Harry Potter-style

Last week, the series’ editor Jeremy Howe revealed how coronavirus had thrown the soap’s plans into disarray.

“We binned 12 scripts and five weeks’ worth of storylines that were about to be written,” he told Radio Times.

“We then started inventing stories that were set in Ambridge, where the coronavirus had now arrived, that could be told in a way that both reflected the lockdown and could be recorded in the cast’s homes.

“I told the team – keep it simple.”

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Media captionCharlotte Martin explains how she’s playing Susan Carter in The Archers from her home.

For the actors, the lockdown meant recording their monologues at home in hastily-constructed makeshift studios.

Annabelle Dowler, who plays Kirsty Miller, has been recording her scripts in her daughter’s wardrobe, surrounded by duvets and and an old mattress to mask any external noises.

On her Twitter account, she shared a photo of the notice she’d attached to the wardrobe door, warning her children to keep their distance.

“Stay away and be silent otherwise you will get into trouble with the BBC and we will have no iPlayer for the rest of the lockdown!”

Her co-star Charlotte Martin explained the challenges of recording in her bedroom.

“A studio is soundproof, whereas suddenly we were having to do it in our own homes,” she said.

“I’ve got my two daughters home and making sure everything is quiet, that nobody is opening doors, that was tricky. I think my husband came up the stairs at one point and we had to redo that!”

She added that, as the crew adapt to new ways of recording the 69-year-old drama, they might be able to start incorporating more voices.

“There may be ways that we can get actors talking to each other or create ways in which we can interact with more than one character at a time, but that will be in the future.”

In the meantime, the lockdown has provided one character with a lucky escape.

Before the lockdown, Kirsty was due to marry handyman Philip Moss, who listeners recently discovered was an illegal gangmaster – employing slave labour in his building firm.

For now, at least, those plans are on hold.

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