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Eldorado (Arcola Theatre)

Simon Dormandy's UK premiere production proves a missed opportunity

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Amanda Hale and Sian Thomas in Eldorado

Oh dear, what a misfire. Although Marius von Mayenburg's oblique, elliptical dystopia is now ten years old its concerns still feel remarkably fresh and it's greatly to the credit of new company, Mongrel Thumb, that they've taken a chance on premiering such an unusual and striking work. Unfortunately their execution doesn't come close to matching their ambition, with a production that's both inert and bafflingly unimaginative.

After everyman estate agent Anton (Michael Colgan) is fired for an abuse of trust, rather than admit his error, he pretends nothing has happened, lying both to his pregnant wife (Amanda Hale), and to his wealthy mother-in-law (Sian Thomas), as he tries to finalise the deal that will rescue his career. But the land he hopes to sell as ‘investment opportunity', sits in the midst of an unnamed city whose outer suburbs seem to be in the grip of conflict. As the play opens we hear how military helicopters circle in the skies while fires burn in the west, and in an image resonant of the bombing of Dresden (Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction is almost certainly an influence), we also learn of how escaped zoo animals can be spotted wandering through the smoking ruins.

The play has a rich lexicon of symbols (lobsters, cupboards, nurseries, ghosts, briefcases and swimming pools among many others) and a keen instinct for the uncanny. The titular eldorado, never named outright, seems at once both to be the city the characters occupy (the flames of its burning suburbs turn the sky golden) and the imagined paradise towards which rapacious invaders, as comfortable in corporate suits as military uniforms, slouch. That greed is a destructive force is scarcely a fresh insight, but the nuanced Ballardian landscape von Mayenburg conjures should be invigorating. Touching intelligently on disaster capitalism, ecological collapse, generational conflict and the alienating prerogatives of international commerce, there's certainly no shortage of material.

Yet Simon Dormandy's production seems intent on squashing any hint of charisma in either the characters or setting. It's hard to tell if the cast are simply straining for naturalism, or playing the roles of monsters impersonating it. Either way every conversation comes across as horribly, and boringly, phoney. There is also an incomprehensible eschewal of the play's surreal humour. A lunatic dribbling fish food from the top of a cupboard onto his mother-in-law's toy-boy should be a joke capable of crossing any border - but here it's played with an almost defiant solemnity. Only Sian Thomas as the grotesque matriarch gives her character any real verve, and yet by the final act even she too seems to have been cowed into delivering her most potent lines while facing away from the audience.

The cast aren't helped by moments of unrectified clunkiness in the script. Twice characters jarringly tell one another to "focus their brains", rather than their minds. Is the off-kilter ugliness deliberate? Does Maja Zade's translation reflect the priorities of the original text? If it does, the direction doesn't help to pin the intention behind these jarring moments. Even the props are dull and uninspiring (photographs too small for the audience to see, a cupboard flimsier than knock-off IKEA, a murky bowl with plastic fish the actors don't even bother to look at) - to the point that I wondered why they hadn't been simply dispensed with altogether.

Afterwards I remembered Peter Brook's warning to directors that sometimes "if you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound". Eldorado is close to silent, and given the talent of this cast, that seems a terrible shame.