Exiles, National Theatre Cottesloe, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar -->

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The Independent Culture

Unseen here since Harold Pinter directed it in 1970, James Joyce's only play has been revived by James Macdonald in a production that is a poem and a revelation. For three hours, we experience that rare quality on the contemporary stage - stillness - and never for a second does it lose its grip.

Joyce wrote Exiles in 1915, after he and his common-law wife had, like his fictional couple, spent several years in Italy. Now Richard, a noble failure as a writer, has come home, but hasn't decided whether to stay. His boyhood friend Robert, now a journalist, is a slick success but a moral weakling - and he knows it, striking poses of nonchalance before the odd, intense man who has rejected Dublin for the intellectual and sexual life that can only exist elsewhere.

Their rivalry finds a simpler focus in Bertha, Richard's wife, whom Robert coveted before they wed. He begins courting her again, and seeks an assignation. But here the drama is stood on its head: Bertha has been reporting Robert's every move to Richard, who tells her that she is free, if she wishes, to go to him.

It is astonishing to find that nearly everything written about this play proves not to be true. Richard is not arrogant and self-pitying; he is bitter and confused. Nor is the triangle Richard's vicarious way of consummating a homosexual attraction to his friend. One line refers to this, but it is far outweighed by their resentment and competition.

The trouble between husband and wife seems a more common one - Richard needs the bold, sensual Bertha (as Joyce did Nora) for his sexual and creative fulfilment, but being the weaker of the two fills him with self-loathing. To compensate, he undermines her - encouraging their son, for example, to rebellion by telling him that Bertha's discipline is cruelly repressive.

The language, though formal, is not, as most writers say, stilted and unplayable, but full of the poetry of ordinary things. That is respected by the actors (Adrian Dunbar as Robert, Peter McDonald as Richard, Dervla Kirwan as Bertha); by Peter Mumford's lighting; and by Hildegard Bechtler's spare set. It suits, as well, Joyce's moments of romantic grandeur: "The rest of life," says Bertha, referring to the days of her youth and love, "is good for nothing except remembering that time."

To 26 October (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk). A version of this review has already appeared in some editions