Aine Ni Mhuiri
The National’s new production in the Cottesloe of James Joyce’s only play is a stimulating evening despite some dramatic flaws.
The question that a work like Exiles poses is whether a great novelist can write a good play. Given that this one hasn’t been revived in London for over three decades, the answer may seem obvious. Certainly, not many names of fiction writers who have made a successful switch to the stage come to mind. Samuel Beckett is one of them, although the plays of another Irish writer he was influenced by, WB Yeats, are not performed today. So, what of Beckett’s great mentor James Joyce?
Exiles is Joyce’s only extant theatrical work. It was written between 1912 and 1915 and first performed in Munich four years later. It had to wait until 1926 for its British premiere.
Joyce described the series of love triangles as three cat and mouse acts. Richard, a writer, has recently returned with his wife Bertha to his native Dublin after nine years in Rome. He aspires to a completely open marriage, and practises what he preaches, but his wife is not comfortable with the “freedom” he imposes on her. An old friend Robert, in love with Bertha, tests the sustainability of Richard’s beliefs and a fourth character, Beatrice, adds complications with romantic links to both the men. There are even implications of same-sex liaisons, extracting almost every possibility from the combination of the four characters.
The main dramatic weakness is that it consists of an almost unbroken chain of exchanges between two people. Although they are all involved in a complicated web of relationships, only two of them appear together. In the brief moments that more characters are seen, the stage lights up and points to the potential for more exciting dynamics, but it is not fulfilled.
Ibsen, to whom Joyce clearly owes a debt, knew exactly how much information to impart to an audience, at least by the time he was writing his great socially realistic dramas. Joyce gives us far more expositional material and it’s difficult at times to keep up. Robert says at one point “Don’t make me think, it gives me a headache”. This play could induce a migraine.
Nevertheless, with its beautiful language and complex interweaving of themes, this is a fascinating study in sexual politics. Much of the discussion could easily be from a modern play, without the expletives obligatory for contemporary playwrights.
Exiles is leisurely, extremely so at times, and James MacDonald’s production respects the audience by never forcing the pace. The four lead actors, amongst whom there seems a little too great a range of ages, are all strong and convincing. Dervla Kirwan is very impressive in her moving portrayal of the fiercely loyal wife pushed to the extremes of temptation. Adrian Dunbar’s mature Robert brings humour to the piece and Peter McDonald as Richard impresses with his quietly confused conviction. Making up the quartet is Marcella Plunkett as Beatrice, and there’s strong support from Thomas Grant as the son Archie and ine N Mhuir as the servant Brigid.
There is a good deal of ambiguity in Exiles. We are not quite sure exactly what has happened between the characters prior to or even within the timescale of the play. Joyce would ask his friends whether they thought that Bertha and Robert slept together at the end of Act 2 and this production maintains the ambiguity. Macdonald’s beautifully controlled direction is enhanced by Hildegard Bechtler’s simple and atmospheric sets and Peter Mumford’s lighting.
The appeal of Exiles is far more than curiosity as to whether a great man of words like James Joyce can put a play together. Had any other writer written it, I think we would find it startling in its themes and social exploration. The beauty of his language and imagery, as well as some deep psychological insight, make this a piece of theatre well worth seeing by an audience prepared to go some way to meet the writer.