If one thing has been a combustible constant in the world for the last century and a half, it’s good old Black Gold, Texas Tea, Dino Juice…
In other words, oil.
In Ella Hickson’s complex and engaging play, Oil, we putter through the decades (Model T Ford to Tesla) with the slippery fossil fuel a ubiquitous backdrop, for better or for worse.
It’s a tale of empire, history, motherhood and coming of age, tracking the lifespan of one of our most precious, and often controversial, commodities.
The Black Swan State Theatre Company production currently on stage at the Heath Ledger Theatre is an impressive local take on the Hickson drama, which was first staged to acclaim at London’s Almeida Theatre.
Starring Hayley McElhinney with a fine ensemble of actors under the direction of Adam Mitchell, it is highly relevant today, particularly with the impacts of climate change growing ever more dangerous.
The action kicks off in 1886 among a clan of crofters in Cornwall, huddling together in their miserable cottage, barely warmed and lit by feeble candlelight.
A salesman arrives at the farm to demonstrate a wondrous new invention – the kerosene lamp.
The man of the house, toting a shotgun, attempts to reject the ideas and buy-out offers of the slickster, who is more snake oil than crude oil, but the new-fangled kero has a powerful pull on certain family members. Presto! Oil has come to Corny.
Then, in the company of mother Mary and daughter Amy, we follow the chequered history of oil development and exploitation through time, right up to today and beyond.
Through 160 years of globe-hopping via Tehran, Hampstead, Baghdad, and then back to Cornwall, this is a time travelling story of mother and daughter as they navigate a shifting world. Are they pawns or are they culprits?
The circumstances of their lives, and those surrounding them, is repeated over the years, with new generations facing both the personal and wider of issues of the times, most of course associated with dealing with the black stuff.
Recurring issues of greed, manipulation, shifty characters, wars, coercion, environmental destruction, the whole shebang, all impact on their lives. But filial love remains between the bosom buddies, no matter where they turn up in history.
“May lives for more than a century and a half,” the play’s production notes inform. “Her daughter Amy does, too, while other characters echo those of different eras in the play, or even seem to reincarnate them.
“As the use of oil spreads, we meet May again at pivotal moments in its trajectory. She’s on the ground when the British Empire takes over the Middle East at the start of the 20th century, then later running her own petroleum company as we hit peak oil in the 1970s.
“Today her relationship with oil is as fraught as our own, and 30 years from now we see her world transformed once more in fascinating and provocative ways.”
Oddly enough life goes on, despite the enormous changes fossil fuels and new technology have wrought in the world.
And regardless of the many negatives of a world dominated by polluting energy giants, there is also the acknowledgement that oil and its derivatives have improved many things, indeed millions of people have a better standard of living.
The play is peopled by odd bods throughout: Cornish sodbusters, a repulsive British naval attaché in Persia, a dubious Libyan government rep; it seems most are keen to sell souls in order to sink another well somewhere.
As always, the Black Swan sets are impressive and the direction slick. While occasionally the playwright’s story thread can seem a tad cryptic, good acting and vital momentum carry the production through to an interesting and thought-provoking finale.
Oils ain’t just oils in this one. There are many nuances and we’re left wondering about how hydrocarbons have changed human life, from globally right down to a dingy Cornwall cottage.
Oil runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre until Sunday 27 November.
Cast: St John Cowcher, Grace Chow, Will Bastow, Hayley McElhinney, Polly Low, Violette Ayad, Will O’Mahony.
Director: Adam Mitchell.
For more information and bookings go to: https://blackswantheatre.com.au/whats-on/oil
Images: Daniel J Grant