The only play James Joyce wrote – apart from an early lost piece - was Exiles, completed in 1915, first produced in Munich in 1919 and in London in 1926. Harold Pinter rescued it from obscurity in a production at the Mermaid Theatre (later at the Aldwych) in 1970. James Macdonald’s tightly wound revival in the National’s Cottesloe goes a long way towards explaining Pinter’s interest in the play, as well as honouring its inherent value.

Partly an autobiographical account of Joyce’s relationship with his wife Nora Barnacle, the common-law marriage of Richard Rowan, a writer, and Bertha, some kind of Irish man magnet, is tested when they return to Dublin after an absence of nine years. Richard’s best friend Robert Hand, a journalist, propositions Bertha, having arranged for Richard to be elsewhere during their tryst. But Bertha has told Richard about her attraction to his friend, and he turns up too. This is a battle of two men’s souls, says Robert: “of your soul against the spectre of fidelity, of mine against the spectre of friendship.”

What little I remember of Pinter’s production hangs around John Wood’s febrile, hawkish Richard, but Peter McDonald presents an entirely different reading, one of open resignation, almost saintly indifference to the hierarchy of relationships. In his crumpled linen suit, he is a very picture of sympathetic emotional lassitude, and this completely wrong-foots Adrian Dunbar’s superb, sexually insidious Robert in their big scenes together.

It has been suggested that while the men’s battle is centred on Bertha, it's also rooted in a homoerotic idea of possessing the same woman and therefore growing closer together. Everyone knows how stuck on Ibsen Joyce was at this point in his career; but the insistence on truth, the unravelling of an obsession, is less powerful here than such shimmering ambiguities.

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. Richard and Bertha’s son Archie (Thomas Grant) seems delightfully immune to the triangular shenanigans, while Marcella Plunkett as Richard’s cousin Beatrice plays a first scene that colours the entire evening; Richard is not as pure and devoted as he would like to be. By the end, he is suffering from “a wound of doubt”.

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 and that she cannot decide what to do until she fully understands them. 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.

- Michael Coveney