James Joyce's Exiles
Cottesloe Theatre, London, August 12th
I knew next to nothing about this play before seeing it, and this is a starting position which, in retrospect, I can recommend. No knowledge of Joyce the novelist or Joyce the Irishman is required: Exiles would not be out of place under the same heading as Joyce's equally slight contribution to poetry, Chamber Music, as it is essentially a self-contained string quartet (with occasional extra parts), a set of dramatic variations on a theme of love and betrayal (whatever those words may turn out to mean to protagonists or audience by the time the curtain falls).
The quiet but relentlessly intense dialogue does not so much advance the plot (how much 'plot' does a love affair have, after all?) as slowly build up a symphonic poem, a sepia-tinted portrait (of the artist?) developing in the darkroom of the stage. It is doubt, Joyce seems to assert, not faith, that holds us together; and doubt is the play's overriding theme, the characters' doubt of each other's words and motives, and our doubt about the events which actually take place, as we watch the recently-returned exile Richard torture himself and those around him with his uncertainty, systematically exiling them from the possibility of understanding, of knowing, of belonging.
It remains ambiguous whether Richard's unravelling of his relationships is the neurotic compulsion of a writer afflicted by the emergent epidemic of (post)modernism, or the emotional sado-masochism of a man who is determined to sabotage the intimacy he fears; but I wonder if Joyce the wordsmith could have remained unaware of the ghost of a pun present in the phrase "Exiles by Joyce". Are we exiled from happiness by choice or by fate? Is there, in the end, a difference?
[Read some more coherent reviews...]
[... and thanks to tkb for organizing the trip to see this!]