THEATRE Coffee Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors, London

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The Independent Culture
Edward Bond has always been one of Britain's most confrontational writers, and he doesn't seem about to stop. Performed by the Welsh community theatre company Rational, his latest play sees him back at the Royal Court for the first time in 10 years, spitting symbols at the audience. Coffee attempts obliquely to equate the destruction of communities in the Welsh valleys with the Babi Yar massacre of 1941, in which the Ukrainian SS murdered 30,000 Jews, machine-gunning them as they stood on a ledge above a ravine.

In the play's very premise, there is an element of confrontation, a challenge laid down by the writer to the audience. "Go on," he's saying, "accuse me of being melodramatic or of being in bad taste. See if I care, because at the end of the day, the joke is on you and your complacency."

Bond's impenetrable morality tale begins with a domestic scene. Nold is trying to eat his tea in peace, but keeps being interrupted by Gregory, a dust-covered figure in a dark suit with a bandage round his head, who seems to be trying to lure him away. "I'm not going nowhere," Nold says, but when the play cuts to the next scene, we find him wandering with Gregory through a forest.

In this anti-Arden, he meets a starving, mud-splashed, dispossessed woman and her daughter. When he first attempts to return home to fetch food for them, he cannot find his way. He appears to have become as dislocated as they have.

Not as dislocated as us, though. I have to confess to finding myself defeated by large chunks of this scene, which dominates the play's first half. Some broad Welsh accents don't make this the easiest play to follow (although the cast offer some fine naturalistic performances).

If a play is a road from A to B, then all the road signs have been removed. Bond is not interested in conventional plot or in psychology or in his characters' personal histories. The moods of the two women - fierce as animals, lovingly tender - swing according to some law known only to themselves. Gregory remains a cypher, watching proceedings most of the time with a silent, sullen aggression.

What emerges most clearly (or least unclearly) is a number of small, heroically futile gestures by the women to assert their humanity, and perhaps to replace the sense of community they have lost: the candle that the daughter lights to show Nold the way, or the wonderfully tender moment in which the two women try to wash the mud from each other. At points like these, Bond's humanism breaks through his rhetoric, shedding a ray of light on the text's opacity.

The second half employs the same characters, though none of them seems to have any recollection of their earlier roles. Nold is a private in the army. Gregory, the sergeant responsible for mass-executions, orders him to shoot the mother and daughter. The connections between this and the forest scene might be easier to make if one had any sure sense of what the first half was about.

What used to be disturbing about Edward Bond was his imagery. What's most shocking about Coffee is that a writer who is so insistent on the need for art to reach out into the "real world" should pay no heed to what an audience can reasonably be expected to understand. Edward Bond may fancy himself as a man of the people, but this smacks dangerously of elitism. To Sat. Booking: 0171-565 5000

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