Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA’s Oil. Photo © Daniel J Grant.

Oil Review – Hayley McElhinney and Abbey Morgan Stun in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Impressive Socio-Political Play

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s presentation of Ella Hickson’s impressive, yet exhausting, play Oil summarises its intention neatly in its first act. It’s 1886 in Cornwall and a growing family are struggling to stay warm during a harsh winter. The men labour on the land, lopping trees that barely manage to provide enough fuel to boil a kettle in their humble home. As the aches and pains of the daily toil settle in their bones, a travelling salesman appears in the night with a vessel for change: a kerosene lamp. His pitch is simple: it takes you fifteen years to grow a tree that gets burned to nothing in hours. Conversely, the oil in the lamp has taken millions of years to be produced and lasts a whole night. Why is humanity so hellbent on destroying the aspects of our world that take so long to build up, cruelly taking for granted and capitalising on finite natural resources?

So begins the unveiling of humanities relationship with this finite resource, the impact of capitalism on a basic human right, namely our desire for warmth and comfort, and most pointedly, whether there is any more infinite resource than love? These are big questions that Hickson intends to answer in a play that is dense, intellectual and proudly steeped in allegory and metaphor. Premiering in London in 2016, this iteration of Oil is directed by Adam Mitchell. It’s an occasionally rewarding experience with moments of pointed, biting comedy that erupt through the searing socio-political drama as we follow Hayley McElhinney’s May across 160 years, tracking her relationship with oil, her daughter Amy (Abbey Morgan), and the resolute impact of colonialism across generations.

Time folds in on itself with Hickson’s riskiest motif, placing May and Amy as time travelling figures who float above the decades, situating themselves amongst evolving turbulence and turmoil associated with the titular energy resource. In act three we see May managing a British oil company that finds themselves at odds with the new republican government of Libya (Tinashe Mangwana giving a powerful performance), all the while May – as a mother – finds herself at odds with her progressive daughter Amy.

The metaphor between humanities reliance on oil and May’s reliance on Amy is at times strained, with the two concepts struggling to gain relevance in the presence of one another. I kept yearning for the narrative of the oil to subside into the background so the relationship between May and Amy were given more space to breath and grow. McElhinney and Morgan are truly impressive in the manner that they bounce off one another, tussling for power and importance in the life of the other. Morgan’s ability to escalate Amy’s maturity across the decades creates much of Oil’s emotional impact, acting as a counterweight to the manner that McElhinney cements May’s conservatism. For Amy, the act of pulling herself away from her mother and all that she stands for is her main driving force, yet the tether continually rubber bands her back to May, a figure who needs Amy in her life for relevance, purpose and most of all, meaning.

Characters frequently talk about the desire for warmth, their yearning to be loved and desired, shunning the harshness of the cold, yet they’re continually denied warmth and comfort, adding an element of cruelty that stings the most throughout the narrative. In act one, May begs for a hug from her partner Joss (a stoic turn from Michael Abercromby who stands as an interstitial narrator between acts) for comfort and warmth, who responds “If I hug you now, you’ll be colder than you were in five minutes time.” It’s a phrase that is repeated in the future based final act when May requests a hug from Amy, adding a circular nature to their journeys and suggesting an inescapable fate of being tied to these noxious and destructive bonds, both familial and to oil.

The stage design by Zoë Atkinson is stunning, with ornate wallpaper and meticulous staging creating layered imagery that reflects the tone of the piece perfectly. There is a cinematic quality to Oil, with the use of dissolves and wipes implemented to frame characters in isolation, accentuating their fractious emotional state that leaves them adrift in the narrative. The lighting design by Matthew Marshall elevates the drama of each scene and is used to impressive and haunting effect in moments where May and Amy recall a waking nightmare of seeing a man on fire. Additionally, the tangible feeling of warmth is elevated by the brilliance of live theatre, accentuated with immediacy when characters light up cigarettes, leading to the smell of herbal smoke filtering through the Heath Ledger Theatre auditorium, itself a wood adorned venue that reinforces the feeling of warmth that Oil seeks to instil in the audience.

At its close, I found myself yearning to read a novelised version of this text so I could return to it over time, allowing my mind to consider the gravity of its themes at length in between readings. There is a grand thesis at play here which demands deep consideration and would likely reveal itself even further on repeat viewings, making the initial viewing experience feel leaden with its heavy-handed narrative. Hickson’s script expands on the impact of colonialism, but does so from a dominant white perspective, actively criticising the structure that it was written in from the inside out. Additionally, Oil dismantles the dominance of masculinity and the patriarchy in a way that links men to oil, asking the question of whether women and men can ever truly be separate entities, just as humanity and oil may forever be entwined.

With Black Swan State Theatre Company staging a powerful and important work like Oil in this mining dominant city, there is a clear line being drawn between the arts and mining dollars. Theatre can be, and often is, used as a venue for protest and societal criticism, an aspect that is brilliantly presented at length here. Yet, while Oil is an impressive feat, the frequent monologues carry a lecture-like tone that makes the experience feel like homework. If there’s a pointed criticism of the text, it’s that it often feels like it wants to be angrier and more critical than it comes across, an aspect that is hindered by the futuristic Red Scare-adjacent final act that is a major downturn after what has come before, coming across less like the gut punch the text thinks it is and more like a weak slap. This is not a fault of the performances, staging or direction, all of which are immaculate, but is certainly not helped by the blunt reinforcement of the theme of our addiction to oil being toxic at curtains close with Midnight Oil’s Beds Are Burning. In case you didn’t get the message, Peter Garrett hammers it home for you.

Oil runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 27 November 2022. Review tickets were provided by the Black Swan Theatre Company.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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