To paraphrase a line in Oil: “as soon as mankind had the audacity to dream it could keep itself warm when the sun went down, we were at war”. The Earth became an extractive commodity to be fought over; abstract lines sprung up into nation-states; division, jealousy and greed became society’s ever-burning fuel. Colonialism, empire, capitalism, modernity: the same basic impulse to escape cold and darkness rules them all.
In pioneering British playwright Ella Hickson’s ambitious modern play, it also rules a wilful (and often problematic) mother’s love.
A time-bending, continent-hopping, multi-layered sci-fi epic and mother-daughter drama, Oil transports (by magical stretch of the imagination) her two main characters from the Industrial Age in Europe when crude oil was discovered, to the oil-rich Middle East at the turn of the century, to nondescript suburbia, and into the future. In each time period, the scene is some manner of dining room, which rests upon a vast mound of blackened soot (Emma White does a brilliant set). Paul Jackson’s lighting is crucial to our perception of what’s going on, and it is fantastic – moving us through greasy pools of waxy candlelight, to thrusting candelabras of boastful brightness, to rainbow fanfares, and to bleached and glaring whites.
...the grim yet always entertaining adage of Oil has left me in a dark pool of reflection. STC has achieved a commendable feat.
Directed with maturity and panache by Paige Rattray (The Lifespan of a Fact, Blithe Spirit), Oil is presented ‘in the round’ at the newly configured Wharf 1 Theatre, in an impressively produced and performed Sydney Theatre Company presentation. Aptly – and with a rather slick takeaway from Hickson about how predictable us humans are – both theatre space and story are circular.
We begin sometime in the 1800s, when the only warmth a body can get is from burning wood or rutting, and the only light after the sun sets is emitted from a piss-weak candle. In a freezing shack on some hard-bitten English farmstead, a woman called May, with both fire and an unborn child in her belly, hears a knock at the door – a loud BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! (Clemence Williams, the composer and sound designer, does an impressive “boom”, among other atmospheric sounds.) A stranger from a foreign land appears (Callan Colley), wearing an enormous fur coat. He’s an envoy from the future, a beacon out of hardship. He has an American accent, and an offer May can’t refuse.
Some two hours later, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar future dystopia. It is again freezing cold. There’s a knock at the door – “BOOM!” – and a stranger from a foreign land appears (Jing-Xuan Chan), wearing an enormous puffy coat. She’s an envoy from the future, too. She has a Chinese accent, and an offer that the Anglocentric May doesn’t trust – but that appeals to her multilingual, leftie and individualist daughter, Amy. Amy has the same fire in her belly as her mother, the same stubborn, ruthless streak. (No child, though. By choice.)
The play wraps itself (if not wholly convincingly) like a moral Möbius strip. On its curling ribbon, we travel to Persia, where the British empire and the precursor to BP is scraping its nails on what appears to be an oil-rich land; to America in the late 20th century, where Gaddafi is demanding foreign petroleum companies in Libya relinquish their monopoly; and to Iraq in the early 21st century, where rivers of oil run into rivers of blood.
This all sounds very political and intense, and it is. Yet, giving fevered life and often bleakly comic relief to these vast historical narratives is May (Brooke Satchwell, of The Twelve and Neighbours, in a blazingly terrific STC debut) and Amy (an equally fiery Charlotte Friels), as well as the characters that surround them. Throughout, mother and daughter pop up as a maid under the empire, a former government MP, a humanitarian aid worker – with their relationship to each other always the most important and fricative part of their identity. For instance, while a representative from the Gaddafi government is negotiating with May (here, she is an oil company CEO), Amy is chucking a teenage tanty and breaking up with her dumb hottie of a boyfriend.
Thronging our explosive leads, our nine-strong ensemble cast revels in their supporting roles and Hickson’s whip-smart dialogue. Benedict Samuel (of Walking Dead fame) electrifies as the grotesque Colonel, burrowing his grinning oily head between the epaulettes of costume designer David Fleischer’s grubby and decorated military coat, and making violent sport of his boredom and lust. Upon witnessing his consummately enacted villainous japes, I laughed, felt my stomach turn, and made a note to see Samuel wherever he appears next. Violette Ayad stands out in contrast for her quiet grace, as an Iranian maid and an Iraqi civilian. Josh McConville plays May’s long-abandoned lover, and strings his rough, romantic woodsman with a harsh poetry.
Oil is a galvanising and original piece of theatre, where global ideas of conquest, land, legacy, inheritance and sacrifice become local. Curiously, where it is outspoken on its other themes (particularly those relating to empire), the massive link between fossil fuels and climate change is largely tacit.
With all its moving parts, and occasionally heavy-handed in its motifs, a less competent theatre company may have lost itself in the weeds. And while I can’t gush about it (it can’t beat Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, upon which There Will be Blood was based), the grim yet always entertaining adage of Oil has left me in a dark pool of reflection. STC has achieved a commendable feat.
'Oil' plays at STC's Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, until December 16. Tickets are $57-$104 and you can snap them up over here.