OIL, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1; 9 November-16 December 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Brooke Satchwell and Josh McConville; below - Brooke Satchwell, Charlotte Friels, and Violette Ayad; below again - Charlotte Friels
According to the Summary of Observations published by the Meteorological Office, London in December 1889, “…bright sunshine was upon the whole extremely deficient”. This is evident from the picturesque gloom in the opening scenes of Oil, Ella Hickson’s fifth play. First staged in London in 2016, it is startlingly fresh and alarmingly on point in its political and social observations. However, a user-friendly timeline is lacking.
Unless an audient has done their homework, it would be virtually impossible to work out that May (Brooke Satchwell), the young Cornish housewife of the initial wintry candlelight, is also May of the next 150 years and four stories. That’s a pity as the last thing needed in a play of such fascinating human complexity and ambition is unnecessary puzzling over “Where the hell are we and why?”
Given the non-naturalistic structure and soaring imagination of the piece, it wouldn’t be out of place to have someone hold up a Brechtian placard giving the date of each section. But no – bewilderment reigns unless you already know that we start in icy, freezing Cornwall, then move on to a British imperial mansion in 1908 Tehran. A smart London home in 1970 is where CEO May learns of Colonel Qaddafi’s take-over of Libya and her oilfields. Finally, an energy-starved future in 2050 is uneasily like images of the UK in recent times.
Throughout, May is the central figure. Her fascination with a new-fangled kerosene lamp brought to the dirt-floored farmhouse by an American huckster is life-changing. No longer willing to be a pliant helpmeet to a stubborn, yeoman farmer husband (Josh McConville), she takes her daughter and flees ice, drudgery, and duty. Daughter Amy (Charlotte Friels) grows from a pouty kid mourning the loss of her teddy to a preternatural tween in Tehran and a job-threatening nuisance to her house servant mother.
The relationship between mother and daughter ebbs and flows as each grows in a different way. Perceptions and needs change over time – dependence to resentment and the emotions in between. Adult Amy learns Farsi (her mother never has) and “goes native” in Tehran, to the disdain of both the ruling Brits and Amy’s Iranian friend (Violette Ayad). The same conflicts can be seen – mirrored even – in the relationship of societies with oil and for some, their position in the British Empire and the British corporate empire. Weaving through these strands is the position of women in – western – society over those 150 years. (In 1889, by the way, Mrs Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League to advocate votes for all women!)
Over the course of two and a half hours, including an interval, Oil is revealed as a gloriously ambitious play that mostly works and rarely flags. Directed by Paige Rattray and powerfully led by Satchwell, Friels, and Ayad and solidly backed by the inestimable, if fleetingly seen McConville, the ensemble cast – Saif Alawadi, Jing-Xuan Chan, Callan Colley, Benedict Samuel, Damien Strouthos and Anne Tenney – a little uneven on opening night, yet coped well with the intricacies of the script and the vocal treachery of performing in the round.
The soundscape and incidental music (Clemence Williams) is a triumph of understatement, underlining, enhancing, and mood, from a mix of traditional to digital instruments and sound. Emma White’s set design is also splendid: a central square whose purpose and appearance morph from one state to another through each period and is surrounded by thick black soil (of petrochemical by-product?) It’s lit by Paul Jackson with real and enhanced candlelight; there’s a delicious moment of theatrical “boo!” And the conjuring apocalyptic chill through colour is shivery. Altogether, a creative tour-de-force.
Oil is historic, futuristic, prescient, and gripping. STC’s resources have done it proud and it’s rapt-making entertainment. Recommended with the reservation that you start in 1889 and end in 2050, but no one tells you.