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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Exiles
Cottesloe Theatre Autumn 2006

James Joyce's one play, first performed in 1919, turns out to be a thoughtful and passionate dissection of the inevitable conflict between thought and passion.

It raises some fascinating questions about human behaviour and addresses them with a frankness surprising for the times, while never losing touch with the real feelings and experiences of its complex characters. It is also rather talky, and as it approaches the end of its third hour, you may wish that director James MacDonald had done some severe editing of the sometimes repetitive text.

Some years back Richard, a writer, created a scandal in Dublin circles by running off with Bertha, but now they have returned through the urging of his friend Robert. Robert has loved Bertha from afar and now presses his suit, but what could be an ordinary and banal bit of lechery is confounded because Richard is absolutely committed to the ideal of openness, freedom and honesty. He refuses to be jealous or even to give Bertha any indication whatever of his feelings, so she can be totally free to do what she wants, and he totally flummoxes Robert by explaining all this to him. (Complicating things a bit further is a fourth party, Beatrice, formerly Robert's fiancée, who has been carrying on an intellectual affair by mail with Richard, inciting Bertha's jealousy.)

Follow that? Robert is driven by love and desire, Richard is determined to control life rationally by refusing to invoke feelings to control others, and Bertha is committed to Richard but takes his coolness as pushing her into Robert's arms.

The result is a series of dialogues in various permutations in which Richard tries to explain his position and Bertha and Robert try to fit this wild card into their already confused emotions. And some very engrossing and very modern questions are raised, about how much love implies control or ownership, about how much freedom a relationship can have before it dissolves, about whether the mind can control the body, and about the costs of the attempt.

And, though Beatrice is barely sketched in and might even have been omitted, the four characters are real and rounded enough for their painful wrestling with these issues - not merely matters of abstract theory to them - to make for engrossing drama.

Peter McDonald plays Richard as working so hard at being what later generations would call cool and laid-back that the strain shows through every moment of forced calm. Adrian Dunbar's Robert is almost uninterruptedly confused by having his familiar routine of lechery and courtship confounded. And Dervla Kirwan captures the pain of Bertha trying to do the right thing when no one around her will give her the slightest hint of what that might be. James Macdonald directs with a respect for the material that occasionally comes a bit too close to ponderousness.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Exiles - National 2006