There’s little that excites me more in theatre than ambitious, thought-provoking productions. In fact, there’s only one thing – ambitious, thought-provoking productions with women front and centre. So hello, Oil. And hello writer Ella Hickson and director Carrie Cracknell who, together, have ensured Oil is such a show.
This play follows one woman, May (Anne-Marie Duff) and her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) whose relationship begins, develops and slowly deteriorates across five key periods in the rise, revolution and fall of oil as empire.
This is bold and brave. Perhaps the play requires an element of suspension of disbelief as it spans 200 years, starting in 1890s Cornwall, where an American oil dealer attempts to lure an impoverished family to sell him their farm, before moving on through turn-of-the-20th-century Iran and revolutionary Libya, and on towards a dystopian future.
Big scope, yet perfectly centered around this touching and complicated mother-daughter relationship that echoes through the ages.
In 1890s Cornwall, May is the pregnant wife in the aforementioned impoverished family. But whilst the men who run the family threaten to chase the oil dealer out of town, seeing him as a swindler and a charlatan, May sees things differently. She is seduced not by his charm or his money, but by the belief that things don’t have to be this way. That there is a better future out there is you are prepared to take a risk.
To May, family ties are ropes that bind. She refuses to settle for what she has. She believes there is more out there for her and her baby. So she does the unthinkable – or, rather, the unthinkable for those with no vision and foresight. She takes a chance – and leaves.
And so sets the pattern for this play. No matter the era, no matter the place of women in society at that time, May and Amy are survivors. And pioneers. They roll the dice and take their chance.
By the time we get to the dark finale, the world has come full circle. The oil has gone and Amy and May are living in a world of energy shortages and blackspots. Black gold has now been replaced with cold fusion, and it is the Chinese who are going where others fear to tread.
Anne-Marie Duff is superb. Of course she is. To be expected. Yet not only is her sardonic dry wit a perfect fit for Ella Hickson’s sparky writing, she also flips brilliantly between being a sympathetic figure, one that you’re rooting for, to one that can be very unlikeable. These are complex female characters, full of contradictions.
Others, no doubt, will be concerned about the play’s three hour running time and its sprawling nature. Perhaps they will see it as over-ambitious, point out bits of clunky dialogue, or the odd awkward attempt to blend the five periods by having characters from the past reappear again. But not me. What I found really sobering, as I watched, was just how fresh and new so much of this seems.
It reinforced to me how deeply embedded gender imbalance is in theatre. That, even to me – someone who keeps speaking out about the lack of platforming of female artists – this is fresh, unusual. A story about women, by women – yes – but this is also a story that is driven by its female characters. Really fleshed out female characters full of admirable traits and imperfections. We just don’t get female characters like this often enough on stage, and certainly not fronting a play as ambitious as this.
May and Amy drive this narrative forward. They are not victims, they are not responding to situations passively. They are not defined by the men in their lives. Instead they take on the responsibility they have to themselves to live their best life.
So is this play about oil? Maybe yes, maybe not. It is not oil itself but what it represents that will keep the human race striving for more. When the oil runs out, it is not the end; it will just be a new beginning. It is the future we’re chasing.
But what this play really captures is the pioneering spirit – it took bravery, vision and a willingness to challenge conventional thought to see the potential in oil, to see how it could improve society and move us all forward. And it is this very same spirit that infuses and emboldens the women in Oil.
Here, it is women not men who are the human embodiment of this pioneering spirit. It is women prepared to walk away from family comforts and human connection, to walk out the door on what they know, what they can rely on, for the hope that there is something better out there for them.
Almeida Theatre, London to November 26, 2016
All production images © Richard Hubert Smith