The Almeida’s gone all Bob Geldof. Not content with brutally renovating the Greeks, Rupert Goold has now decided to save the world, one geopolitical problem at a time. Following on from Adam Brace’s They Drink It In The Congo, which tackled mineral exploitation in East Africa, Ella Hickson’s Oil takes on the might of the fossil fuel industry in a time-hopping saga of mothers and daughters. She doesn’t win. Carrie Cracknell directs an ambitious, funny and deeply resonant production, but, like Brace before her, Hickson has bitten off more than she can chew. Neither twigged that big issues are best seen through small lenses.
The first half: a pregnant housewife on a Cornish farm in the bitterly cold winter of 1889; an adventurous single mother in Tehran on the eve of the First World War; a hard-nosed business woman and her truant teenage daughter in a Hampstead pile shortly after Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan coup. Flitting through space and time, Hickson charts the inexorable rise of the oil industry in three superbly developed scenes, all featuring the same mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and daughter (Yolanda Kettle), dropped across history like recurring themes in a symphony. The same emotions, the same conversations, the same mistakes are threaded through a century of industrial progress.
This is domestic drama written on the largest canvas. Watching it is like watching a disaster movie unfold in Imax. Cracknell separates scenes with vast projections of enormous oil pumps plumbing the depths of the earth. Soaring, consciously grandiose music periodically swells as the focus shifts forward several decades. This, the audience is forcibly informed, is a really big deal. And it is, indisputably. One doesn’t have to be an expert to posit that the pursuit of fossil fuels has sat at the heart of international politics for decades, nor to predict that the world’s reserves eventually running dry threatens civilisation as we know it. Oil matters. But we know that already.
And therein lies the rub. Kudos to Hickson for confronting one of the defining phenomena of our age, but the decision to ram the play’s significance so far down the audience’s throat is a fatal one. It’s conceited. On a micro level, the dialectics Hickson crams into simple, domestic settings and relatable, human characters is utterly gripping; arguments about justice, colonialism, capitalism and the human condition are wielded with a deftness and articulacy comparable to that of the National’s Les Blancs. On a macro level, though, Oil’s impact is tempered by the play’s own self-awareness. By working across centuries and across continents, and making a big song-and-dance about it at the same time, Hickson and Cracknell have unleashed an overwhelming – and entirely superfluous – sense of gravitas. And Hickson’s sharp, witty, incisive writing is bogged down in it.
It’s a problem most blatantly present in the shorter, solipsistic second half, set in the future. Mother and daughter are first re-encountered in Baghdad in 2021 – after the second Iraq war of 2018 – and then again in 2051, back on the Cornish farm two centuries later. Oil has been superseded, and in a stripped-back scene that echoes the play’s opening, mother and daughter are reduced to enfeebled consumers, predated upon by Chinese multinationals mining the moon for resources. We live in a civilisation pre-eminent because of oil, Hickson suggests, and like all civilisations, it will one day fall. This is the age of oil, and it will pass. It’s grand, thought-provoking stuff, but it is also gallingly proud of its own weight.
Charting the rise and fall of Western civilisation was always going to be a big ask, but although Hickson and Cracknell end up hoisted on the petard of their own ambition, Oil is still a thoroughly absorbing watch, with a stonking pair of central female roles in the time-travelling mother and daughter, played to perfection here by a wiry, uncompromising Duff and a gloriously sulky, sarky Kettle. In their endless, cross-generational conflict, the pair neatly position the personal against the political, eloquently dissecting the plight of individual ethics in a rampantly exploitative, oil-driven, capitalist society. There’s fine work too from Tom Mothersdale, Brian Ferguson, Patrick Kennedy and Sam Swann, as a set of male characters, similarly resonant across space and time.
I like this new strain of highly ambitious, highly political work at the Almeida. It has its flaws, but it also has an energising, electrifying relevance about it, which is more than can be said about most contemporary theatre in London. Up next is Robert Icke’s adaptation of Mary Stuart. If anyone can condense a sprawling, significant, era-defining topic into dazzling, digestible drama, he can. Bring it on.
Oil is on until 26th November 2016 at the Almeida Theatre. Click here for more details.