Theatre: 'Theatre begins at the gates of Auschwitz and if you don't know what I'm talking about, then I'm wasting my time'

Edward Bond introduces his latest work to Carl Miller
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The Independent Culture
Next week's Royal Court staging of Edward Bond's Coffee marks the dramatist's return to the company with whom his reputation was first established. Yet it's more than a decade since anything by Bond was last seen at the Court, and over 15 years since he wrote his last new play for them.

Bond's dismay at English theatre led him to withdraw from its institutions for much of the past 10 years. He sees the treatment of Coffee as indicative: "It was returned by the National Theatre within a day. All they said was: 'It is not for us.' They didn't say it was a bad play," he continues. This contrasts with the early Royal Court.

"When I sent my first play to the Court, George Devine said: 'This play is unstageable. It doesn't mean anything. I don't see how you'd put it on stage.' But then he said, 'Sit down and just take me through this scene.' So I took him through the scene and afterwards he said, 'Well, it seems to work.' And, although he didn't understand the way it would work, that man didn't say, 'It's not for us.' He said, 'I have a theatre, there are actors, do what you feel is necessary.'"

Over the past decade Bond has continued to write plays, as well as a vast correspondence whose publication sets out his views on both theatre and politics. He expresses himself on the page and in person with a far from luvvie vehemence. The National Theatre is "an institution of total sleaze", while the RSC "trivialises and vulgarises Shakespeare in a way that's quite barbarous".

"Our theatre is dead," he says. "The man who runs the National Theatre or the RSC - I call them the floating dead. On the surface they float, and they appear to have a semblance of life because the current carries them along."

As well as assaults on the pretensions of British theatrical notables, Bond's letters set out an aesthetic more detailed than any other theatre practitioner in this country has attempted. Bond sees the demands made by his writing as in advance of what English mainstream theatre can deliver. He has explored new methods in workshops and rehearsal, but has been criticised for a refusal to compromise in their pursuit. "That is what one is asked all the time. Everybody who's involved in the theatre in this country - I'm prepared to make exceptions, but almost totally everybody - has been caught up in this structure of producing a product. Truth isn't a product. Humanness is not a product."

He wants practitioners to refuse the constraints of their working life. "Peter Hall said to me once, 'Do you know how much it costs to clean the windows [of the National Theatre]?' And I said, 'Don't clean the windows.' There are lots of people sitting around there in cardboard city or going around on skateboards. Get them to draw in the dust. You don't have to clean the windows: you can think."

Despite alienation from theatre here, Bond is a prophet not without honour abroad. The premiere of his recent In the Company of Men was given in France, as was a major revival of The War Plays trilogy. They were directed by Alain Francon, who will direct the professional premiere of Coffee in Paris next year: "Somebody like Alain Francon understands my work. He has a use for it."

"Use" is crucial to Bond's ideas of drama. He rejects the reduction of theatre to just another product for consumption. "A product has no use, it is used. A sewing machine, a car, a typewriter is just a clone, it just reproduces itself. Consumerism is itself a clone activity, it is not creative."

His pursuit of "use" has committed him to work with those outside traditional theatre structures. Thus the British premiere of Coffee was given last November by a community theatre company in Wales, supported by the University of Glamorgan. That production plays six performances in London next week. Since the Royal Court has moved out of its Sloane Square home for rebuilding, the production will take place at the Ambassadors Theatre, making it Edward Bond's first play in the West End, an ironic presence in the homeland of theatre as product.

The distance from "Theatreland" to the Rhondda valley is not just geographical. It is economic and political. The cast of Coffee live, work and study in the former mining towns and docklands of one of the poorest areas of the British Isles. This community production is not amateur dramatics: it demands arduous weeks applying concentration and understanding to dense, theatrically sophisticated writing.

I saw the production last winter, in a theatre formed from a deconsecrated 19th-century chapel. The performance not only showed the play's power and strength, but also fulfilled some of Bond's hopes for the theatre. "They know how to use the play," he says. Bond was directing In the Company of Men for the RSC while Coffee premiered in Wales, and the comparison proved revealing. "The actors do not have the trained skills that people had when I was working with my friends at the RSC, but they can say that a play must have something to do with our life. So they know what I'm talking about and they can act what I'm talking about from outside this product system. That's what I like about this production."

Coffee is the story of a part-time student. The combination of students and non-students in the production, as well as the resources put into this community event by the University of Glamorgan, emphasise the connection between education and culture that Bond draws in his writing. He has worked on his plays with students and youth groups: the two written since Coffee are both specifically for young people. He is as passionate about the importance of genuine education as he is about theatre. A letter Bond wrote, declining to send an Ohio school student a signed photo so that she could get a good grade in her "famous person" project, concludes: "I advise you to leave your school immediately. Doing so can only be to your advantage."

He gives an enthusiastic description of young people's own plays written in response to his recent At the Inland Sea. "Young people have to create a world," he explains. With those who know nothing of his reputation - he once turned up at a school finding a group of infants expecting Michael Bond, author of Paddington Bear - he sees the possibility of a theatre that fulfils his hopes. "Theatre begins at the gates of Auschwitz and in the ruins of Hiroshima and if you don't know what I'm talking about, then I'm wasting my time. Now where can I say that? I can say it in schools."

At the Inland Sea takes a boy, and its young audiences, to the doors of the gas chambers. Bond's determination to face inhumanity head on has always proved controversial. His first play to be fully produced, Saved, bewildered and angered some at its 1965 premiere, famously for the scene that shows a group of young men tormenting and then stoning to death a baby in a pram. The author was accused of gratuitous sensationalism. When I worked on Coffee with a group of actors last year, one asked to withdraw from the project after reading its central scene. This too shows a group of men committing murder. The actor told me she found the play obscene and assumed that the playwright was some sort of monster, glorifying the horrors he presents.

Why does Bond - whose opposition to violence is unequivocal - create such responses in some people? "What you're asking an audience to do is redefine themselves in some way. It's not, 'I now will decide to do something differently.' If I have seen something that affects me, I am different, I am changed. If that is there, then I must expect some of the audience to say, 'This is terrible, I hate it.' The huge misunderstanding is that theatre should be a cure. It is not a question of cure, it is a question of handing over responsibility to an audience."

The kernel of Coffee is the massacre at Babi-Yar, the ravine to which Kiev's Jewish population was taken and slaughtered. The play asks an audience to confront the worst that human beings can do. "The thing I have learnt is that the impossible happens and the unthinkable happens," says Bond. "That thing which is beyond human toleration is tolerated. The only thing that can stand between us and that collapse is not an economy. It is a culture that accepts human responsibility, that's radically innocent, that is driven by a passion for the truth - not to survive, not to maintain institutions."

Amid all the horrors, Bond remains an optimist. "If it works well, when these people go out, they will have accepted human responsibility. Those people I feel I can contact - I want them to feel stronger at the end"n

'Coffee', 27-31 May, Royal Court Theatre at the Ambassadors, London WC2 (0171-565 5000). Edward Bond's letters, in five volumes, are published by Gordon & Breach; 'Coffee' and 'At the Inland Sea' are published by Methuen

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