BETWEEN THE LINES / Jane Coles, the playwright, on James Joyce

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The Independent Culture
Bertha: Do you not wish to know - about what happened last night?

Richard: That I will never know.

Bertha: I will tell you if you ask me.

Richard: You will tell me. But I will never know. Never in this world.

I have come across great literature the way an early traveller in the Arctic Circle encountered the aurora borealis for the first time in the northern sky; I have experienced the fear and wonder of the unexplained. I left school in Sydney at 15; I had learnt the names and dates of the explorers who had died discovering Australia's deserted heart, but little else. When I watched a production of Joyce's Exiles in London in 1970 I sat in the theatre ignorant and unprepared for the brilliance of genius. Exiles speaks about many things - male friendship, jealousy, adultery - but what has echoed in my head is the theme of isolation. As a playwright I can pretend that I can hear what is being said long after I have left the room; in real life we are locked into our own experience with only the fragility of trust for comfort. Richard will never witness for himself what happened on the night that he was not with Bertha. 'You will tell me. But I will never know. Never in this world' is the saddest thought a lover could admit; it is also the most beautiful line I've ever heard.

Jane Coles' play 'Backstroke in a Crowded Pool' is at the Bush Theatre, London W12 until 24 July (081-743 3388)

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