New play covers love, hate, commodification, imperialism and oil

November 13, 2022
Oil Black Swan Theatre
A scene from 'Oil'. Image source: Black Swan Theatre

By Ella Hickson
Directed by Adam Mitchell
Starring Hayley McElhinney, Michael Abercromby, Tinashe Mangwana, Violette Ayad, Will Bastow, Grace Chow, St John Cowcher, Polly Low
Performing at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth until November 27

Oil is a sprawling, time-jumping epic of a play, spanning 160 years, that uses a conflictual, love/hate mother and daughter relationship as a matrix against which to trace the petroleum industry’s problematic history and future.

The lives of May and her daughter Amy are metaphors for the history of oil. Their names are anagrams of the other’s, hinting at the complexity of their relationship.

In the opening scene we encounter an extended family desperately carving out a living in the wintery British countryside in which every element of life is toil. Providing water for animals requires smashing the frozen surface of a trough with bare hands and preparing a chicken meal risks food poisoning.

Into this bleak existence a travelling salesman comes bearing a kerosene lamp that illuminates and warms the hands. May, pregnant with her daughter, is seduced by the technology and the salesman.

The names of the family members are reflected in characters appearing in later scenes as May jumps decades and continents tracking oil’s rise as a commodity and subject for imperialist plunder. There are recurring subtexts such as the safe eating of chicken that becomes easily provided as refrigeration and food packaging arise.

We see the early 20th century British seizure of Iranian oil and its attendant racism. We also encounter such milestones of oil’s triumphant march as Muammar Gaddafi’s nationalistic, anti-imperialist coup in Libya and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

As the centuries pass by, May and Amy enact different facets of oil’s fascination. Oil is the terrain upon which their life choices and relationship depends.

May becomes an industry tycoon while Amy articulates anti-capitalist rebelliousness. But the magnetic compulsion of their love and anger never resolves into a revolutionary explosion.

With five acts lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, Oil demands a lot of its cast and audience. However, given the passionate performances and excellent staging it makes for a stimulating theatrical event demanding thoughtful reflection.

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