Unseen here since Harold Pinter directed it in 1970, James Joyce's only play has now been revived by James Macdonald in a production that is a poem and a revelation. For three hours we experience that rarest quality on the contemporary stage - stillness - and it never loses its grip. In the course of a day and an evening and the morning after, two men, or a man and a woman talk, sit and talk about love, the past, and the night. That is all, and that is everything.
Joyce wrote Exiles as the First World War was beginning, after he and his chambermaid lover, Nora Barnacle, had been, like the couple in the play, absent from Ireland for eight years. Now Richard, a writer whose only book has sold 37 copies, has come back to Dublin with his wife, Bertha, and a meeting with his old friend Robert, who once had eyes for her. Robert now courts Bertha in the flowery way that to him is as routine as his studied poses of nonchalance. We wonder if it is genuine love that inspires him, simple lust, or rivalry with the friend who left a philistine country to create literature while Robert has become a literary journalist. He makes an appointment with Bertha, and we wonder if she will keep it. But then the conventions of romantic drama are overthrown when Robert leaves and it turns out that Bertha has been reporting every stage of his wooing to her husband. The resemblance to Pinter's Betrayal is evident, but, while that play is a cold collation of grievances, Joyce's work is tender and full of mystery.
That mystery, however, is conveyed in dialogue that is formal and eloquent. There are no contractions ("Is it not strange..."), and the characters never grope for words. But the distance of nearly a century and the setting in a country where words are music makes the strangeness believable. Strangest of all is finding that nearly everything one has read about this play is untrue. Richard does not appear tiresome and self-pitying. The two men do not use Bertha to establish a homosexual connection by proxy. Rather, the trouble seems a much more common one, one that sadly persists to this day. Richard needs a woman stronger than himself, but her presence is a constant reminder of his weakness. To assert his masculinity, he must undermine her, treating her discipline of their child as cruelty and making her feel that her earthiness, which is his salvation, prevents her from understanding him.
As Richard and Bertha, Peter McDonald and Dervla Kirwan could not be better. As for Adrian Dunbar, it is pitiful and touching to see him change from the sardonic, elaborately casual dandy who pays compliments with his legs crossed to the elemental man who pelts down the stairs at his lover's cry. Marcella Plunkett as the educated woman who makes Bertha jealous and Aine ni Mhuiri as an old servant complete this picture of perfection. Hildegard Bechtler's spare, dark set and Peter Mumford's lighting provide a setting that, like the play, never resorts to poetic flourishes but distills the poetry of ordinary things.
"I do not wish to know but to believe," says Richard, as he tries to substitute the mystery of love for that of faith. Can love bear that burden? We are left wondering.