“I don’t know anything about lobsters”
Sadly not a sequel to the escapades of Pilar and Marcus, this Eldorado is the UK premiere of Marius von Mayenburg’s 2004 play, translated by Maja Zade. It is also the first production by new theatre company Mongrel Thumb and it makes for an ambitiously bold opening statement, albeit one that is likely to have as many detractors as it does fans. von Mayenburg’s work is inscrutably European in feel (Fireface at the Young Vic is my other experience of him) and Simon Dormandy’s production can only do so much to open it up.
Which means audiences at the Arcola will have to be, well, a little less British, a bit more adventurous in accepting von Mayenburg’s version of the world. His El Dorado is a modern day urban sprawl in which property is king, so much so that even though war is raging close by, investors are excited at the potential for building on the battlefields left behind. The rush for colonisation can’t hide the cultural malaise of a society on the edge of despair though, unhappiness manifesting itself in the strangest and most pervasive of ways – lobsters, cupboards, forests, piano lids.
The characters may be connected – a property developer tries to deal with a slippery boss, his pianist wife teaches a young woman but is more preoccupied with wealthy widow of a mother and her flirtatious boytoy cum business partner. But they are thoroughly estranged, not just from each other but from the world that burns around them, disconnected from humanity and caught in an amoral hinterland. And this we find out from the abstractly poetic and wilfully obtuse writing, powerful imagery going up against lurid speechifying.
As a result, it has a rather sinuous rhythm, almost episodic in its nature as the ground beneath its feet shifts ever further from reality and then back again, as the human race is excoriated for its innate selfishness and the treatment of the planet. And though it may have its frustrating moments conceptually, there are some cracking performances. Amanda Hale breathes uncomprehending angst as the wife, Michael Colgan excels as the disillusioned developer and Sian Thomas glistens with monstrous wittiness as the self-absorbed matriarch.
It’s a brave choice from Mongrel Thumb but one which I think pays off, as long as one is willing to go along with its heightened otherness. It may have come out of frustration at Western intervention in the Middle East and beyond with all its attendant profit-grabbing strings attached but looking at the world today, it still speaks for so much of our capitalist impulses. A thought-provoking production well-worth the effort to think over.