Exiles, the only stage play by Irish novelist James Joyce, was revived at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre last night (2 August 2006, previews from 26 July), for a repertory run to 26 October 2006 (See News, 19 Apr 2006). James Macdonald’s production is the first in 30 years.

In 1914, during his long self-imposed exile from his native Ireland, Joyce wrote Exiles, between his classic novels Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. It’s based in part on the author’s own relationship with his common-law wife Nora Barnacle. Back in Dublin after nine years abroad, Richard and Bertha have to confront two other people who love them and ask themselves questions about guilt and responsibility. Will infidelity hold them together?

Overnight critics commented on how modern the play’s themes are, dealing with infidelity and immorality in a way which was quite shocking for audiences at the time it was written. They were impressed with the controlled performances of the cast and admired Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative design.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.comJames Macdonald’s tightly wound revival in the National’s Cottesloe goes a long way towards explaining Harold Pinter’s interest in the play, as well as honouring its inherent value…. The production has a pregnancy of mood that is hypnotically sustained by the silhouetting of the actors in Peter Mumford’s lighting and the opalescent transparency of Hildegard Bechtler’s design…. Adrian Dunbar is a languid sadist of a seducer, always prepared to justify his advances. But the play really works because Dervla Kirwan suggests that Bertha is totally in thrall to her own impulses…. All the performances, in fact, illuminate a play that can seem dense and impenetrable on the page but which reveals not only the secrets of the human heart but also the peculiar agonies of Joyce’s marriage. This is an important, as well as fascinating, revival.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent - “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…. 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.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “James Macdonald's fine revival in the Cottesloe leaves one puzzled as to the neglect of a work which seems a missing link between Ibsen and modern drama…. Joyce's play is a cat-and-mouse sexual game quarried from his own life…. the moral freedom proves agonising to all; and, to the last, we are never exactly sure whether Bertha and Robert slept together…. One is shocked by the play's modernity. Wilde famously said ‘in married life three's company, two's none’; but Joyce takes that further by suggesting modern marriages are sustained only by a third party. Rowan's inquisitiveness about his wife's dalliance acquires an extraordinary mixture of prurience and pain. Even the unresolved ending reminds us that Joyce anticipated Pirandello, Beckett and Pinter in allowing spectators the dignity of choice…. Some may dismiss this as a novelist's play; to me it emerges as a neglected landmark of modern theatre that explores the byzantine complexities of marriage with the honesty of genius.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “Exiles’ psychologically nuanced portrait of a marriage in emotional distress manifests a startling modernity. Its ideas about sexual freedom and experiment within a traditionally closed marital framework remind us that some Edwardians were free radicals…. Peter McDonald's enthralling performance of becalmed, brooding introversion ensures the husband keeps his inscrutability intact…. MacDonald's production sacrifices Exiles' governing mood of perverse and agonised sexual confusion, which McDonald, Miss Plunkett and Dervla Kirwan's troubled Bertha powerfully transmit, in favour of Dunbar's misguided, winsome perkiness. James Joyce is accordingly done down.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell