"My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet aeroplane. His son will ride a camel." A Saudi aphorism
Theatre is often the place to take on ambitious stories but to take on civilisation's love affair with black gold might be a little too ambitious for some. Not for writer Ella Hickson or director Carrie Cracknell. The trouble with the story of oil is that it's impersonal, it has no face, it's not an event and it has become a mundane commodity of everyday existence, and yet it's at the very cornerstone of economics, politics and society. Wars have been fought over it, empires built and destroyed, coups instigated and great wealth accumulated. The density of the subject can make it foreboding territory for storytellers to take on, I can't think of a serious attempt to take on oil and geo-politics since the 2005 film Syriana by Stephen Gaghan- that is until last week.
An impressive performance that takes us from 19th century Cornwall when kerosene lamps were first introduced, traversing 20th century Persia as the British took control of Iranian oil, pausing in 1970's Britain as the major British oil companies start to lose their fields to post-colonial nationalist governments, moving onto Iraq in 2021 and finishing at our post-oil future in the middle of the 21 century, as Chinese firms start to take over the British economy. Perhaps special credit must be afforded to the number of languages spoken during the play, which included Persian, Iraqi Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, in particular, Amy (Yolanda Kettle) who had to speak all three languages at different stages of the play.
At the heart of the play was a mother-daughter relationship which was often difficult due to two strong willed and single minded people, May (Anne-Marie Duff) and Amy. May the authoritarian mother who is cold and distant from others, but ultimately believes that she has her daughter's best interests at heart, and Amy, the rebellious daughter who thinks her mother is an uncaring monster due to her senior position in an oil company and her overall emotional distance. The prism of this relationship is not only humanising, it also serves to demonstrate society's fixating/schizophrenic relationship to oil. The play is essentially a time traveller's guide to oil but family remains a constant throughout the ages.
The big question the play poses is what comes next? What do we do when oil finally runs out and the post-oil economy leads to energy shortages? More than that it forces us to think carefully about our assumptions and attitudes towards each other and our history, present and future. A thought-provoking evening at the theatre but not without its laughs, while the subject matter is heavy, the play is surprisingly not too heavy and there is much good humour on offer. I do think time spent watching this play is time well spent. The performances were convincing and the characters relatable. I left the theatre intrigued and I know other will too.
Oil by Ella Hickson and directed by Carrie Cracknell on at Almeida theatre running until 26 November.