Oil at the Almeida Theatre
Oil. The word itself invokes a plethora of abstract trauma and guilt, both historical and contemporary: imperialism, colonialism, war, the finite. Playwright Ella Hickson is acutely aware of these dreaded connotations and attempts to wrestle them head-on in an astonishing new play showing at the Almeida Theatre. It’s not often that a production speaks of the past, present and future with equal profundity and chilling resonance like Oil does.
Set over a duration of 150 years across numerous geographies from Cornwall to Iran, this is a show that dispenses with temporal reality to form a more artful and grandiose articulation. Told through the parochial familial drama of a time-hopping May (Anne-Marie Duff), it is a troubled mother-daughter relationship that forms the emotional crux of the play and serves as a prism through which the magnitudinal geopolitical context exists to chew over and reflect upon. As their relationship sours, the audience witness the noxious destruction caused by a resource that people depend upon and also has a seemingly sentient evil. By embracing the complexity of the issue, Oil is neither pedagogic nor didactic; it does not exist to lecture, moralise or even inform, but to show and to trust its audience.
Anne-Marie Duff is beyond exceptional in her role. Starting life as a pregnant housewife in a Cornish farm house during the late 1890s, her character arc undergoes a gradual and convincing shift come each new time-space transition. After leaving Cornwall, May works as a servant with the British Empire as they scour Persia for black gold, then as a 1970s corporate executive for a drilling corporation, defending her capitalistic right to exploit Libya’s oil reserves when threatened of nationalism by Gaddafi’s regime, and eventually into an overweight mediocrity in a chilly prediction of our post-Brexit, post-oil future (unfortunately, adorning the actors in fat suits is no less witty as satire than Pixar’s Wall-E). While this final prediction of the future is disconcerting and affecting – one in which the Chinese spear-head operations to colonise and exploit the natural resources of the moon – it is also bathetic in tone to what has preceded it. It seems a strange point to finish an otherwise awe-inspiring, apocalyptic odyssey.
Written with tremendous cogitation and intelligence, Oil favours slow but rewarding build up over thrill-a-minute entertainment. This initial start may test a viewer’s resolve, but as the narrative progresses across an extended running time, the audience is amply rewarded with tremendous hard-hitting drama that forces them to contemplate the very framework of our society and identity. The ultimate question: is there an end to our rapacious plundering of this planet? If not, which planet is next?
Oil is at the Almeida Theatre from 7th October until 26th November 2016, for more information or to book visit here.