Theatre was far too slow to address urgent environmental themes. But the last few years have seen a rapidly expanding canon. In London alone we’ve had “The Contingency Plan” (2009) at the Bush; “Greenland” (2011) at the National Theatre; “The Heretic” (2011), “Ten Billion” (2012) and “2071” (2014) at the Royal Court. The problem faced by playwrights is how to move the vastly complex environmental entanglements between the human and non-human world to centre-stage, and give them the same imaginative force as conventional dramas that focus solely on human relationships. Only Steve Waters’s “The Contingency Plan” displayed zip and zest, with characters fully immersed in the dilemmas which faced them.
The challenge is especially pronounced for Ella Hickson, the writer of a new play called “Oil”. This fossil fuel has given us – among other things – petrol, fertilisers, plastic bags, aspirin, chewing gum, lipstick and Deepwater Horizon. How do you find an angle on a substance whose most salient feature is ubiquity?
Hickson’s answer is ambitious but wildly implausible. She tells a macro-story of empire and exploitation through the micro-story of a turbulent mother-daughter relationship. We follow the central characters, May (Anne-Marie Duff, pictured) and her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle), as they move through five successive eras, from the 1880s to the 2050s. At the beginning, May is the pregnant wife of a Cornish farmer, plucking a chicken by candlelight while her husband chops firewood outside in the harsh cold. The strangest and most potent of the five scenes, it fuses the characters’ lives with the energy regime they endure: wood and wax dictate how they live and think. The hard-bitten mother-in-law rebukes May as she shivers in the wintry cold: “Why is it that you think you should be warm when the sun ain’t shining?” When an American with a kerosene lamp arrives with a handsome offer to buy the farm, May’s husband shocks the others by saying no.
In a more traditional play, this would be the set-up for a painfully claustrophobic drama about a family riven by an energy revolution (one I’d like to see). But May, pregnant and desperate to protect the interests of her future child, walks out into the snow, and another play entirely. In the next scene, set in the Edwardian period, she is a waitress with a young daughter, working in the desert as the British get their hands on Persian oil. “Damn bad luck”, as an officer says, “There’s no oil anywhere in the empire.” Then we move to the 1970s. May has become a forty-something oil executive living in Hampstead, battling life on two fronts. She wants her teenage daughter to put the ice cream back in the fridge and abstain from sex with her new, very average boyfriend. At the same time, she’s trying to stop Colonel Qaddafi and the Revolutionary Command Council from taking a 50% share in her company’s Libyan oil fields.
On the domestic and the global level, Hickson’s focus is on control: who has it and who doesn’t, who has to struggle for independence, and how those who lose power deal with it. But as so often with plays that take on self-consciously important environmental themes, a gap opens up between the characters’ own lives and what it is they’re discussing. As the play progresses, the subject matter becomes external to their lives. They comment upon it portentously rather than inhabit it.
The family dynamics are more fun to follow, especially when the actors are as taut and snappy as Duff and Kettle. Hickson’s dialogue is at its best in the no-holds-barred battle between a sassy, doughty mum and her truculent, razor-sharp teenager. The speeches about politics, activism and new technologies can’t compete with the molten personal animus behind May’s attack on her daughter’s slack, opportunistic boyfriend.
Nor does the intellectual daring of “Oil” increase its emotional punch. Each shift in time and place brings in a whole new set of circumstances. Hickson gives the play an internal coherence through repeated moments and actions (cups of tea, chicken meals, recurring dreams). The story goes full circle from the orange glow in the first scene as the American salesman fires up the kerosene lamp to the milky white glare in the last as a Chinese saleswoman switches on a domestic energy hub powered by cold fusion. But ironies in themselves don’t light up a play.
A tremendous amount isn’t said. Coal was every bit as responsible for colonialism and empire as oil and, as the officer might say, Britain had damn good luck there. The play also subscribes to a simplistic history of energy where one system replaces another. That, of course, is not what has happened: globally, more coal has been burnt in the last few years than ever before. And by jumping from 1970 in the third scene to 2021 in the fourth, the play sidesteps the moment we’re living in now, when international agreements have transformed countries’ energy policies. In leaping across time Hickson not only spreads her story too thin, but also misses out its most difficult and dramatic question. Oil has become embedded in nearly every facet of our daily lives. How, then, do we wean ourselves off it?