Sunday, November 12, 2006

Theatre Review : Exiles by James Joyce - Cottesloe (dir James McDonald 14/08/06)

Richard Rowan is married to Bertha, but conducting an intense intellectual correspondence with Beatrice Justice. Meanwhile her cousin, Robert Hand, Richard's best friend, is trying to seduce Bertha. After each attempt, Bertha tells Richard what Robert said and did, and if they kissed, and how they kissed. Robert invites Bertha to an assignation at his cottage, but she tells Richard beforehand, who turns up and confronts Robert - hut he still doesn't want to deny Bertha the autonomy to decide if she should sleep with Robert. The following day, the question of did she / didn't she sleep with Robert remains unresolved.

Joyce was a follower of Ibsen, yet this eschews Ibsen's melodrama. The principle characters dance a stately pavanne around each other in a series of dialogues. Voices are seldom raised. Richard is a cold character, masochistically intellectualising the relationship between Robert and Bertha. Robert is a shallow womaniser for whom friendship means trying to advance Richard's career as a writer whilst trying to sleep with his wife. Bertha is more complex - is she trying to please her husband by going along with her husband's advances, or does she respond to Robert's passion compared to Richard's cold intellectualism.

This is a masterly production, which builds a spirit of quiet intensity over a quickly passing three hours. All the characters are cast and played to perfection - Peter McDonald betraying only his inner turmoil as Richard, Adrian Dunbar a convincingly facile Robert, but Dervla Kirwin quite outstanding as Bertha. The intensity of the production grows slowly, quietly but resolution is not quite attained, the ambiguities never fully resolved, leaving the audience hungry for more.

It is a great disappointment that Joyce didn't write more for the theatre, as this unjustly overlooked work is a post-Ibsenite masterpiece, and amply shows that Joyce could easily have been as great a playwright as he is a novelist.

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