Review: Oil At Almeida Theatre
In the latest of her theatre reviews for St John Street News, Sofia Quaglia delivers her verdict on the Almeida’s complex but fascinating new production of ‘Oil’…
It took Ella Hickson six whole years to complete her latest creation, Oil, now showing at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.
The richness, complexity and depth of her latest theatrical work probably give away the reason she has taken so long developing it; the nearly three hour-spanning play is rife with analysis of topical, mind-boggling themes.
Oil highlights geo-political and socio-economical dilemmas aplenty, touching upon the world’s current trends of imperialist exploitation and crippling capitalism.
This five-part narrative is grounded by a commentary on female emancipation but largely revolves around an investigation of the precariousness of mother/daughter relationships along with the development of the concept of ‘commodities’ and its impact upon Western civilization.
It’s the story of May, a driven yet cynical woman, and her daughter Amy, rebellious and naive, chronicling 160 years of their lives together in its dystopian setting.
From 1889 to 2051, from Cornwall and Hampstead to Tehran and Baghdad, the two travel between time and space at an unbearable velocity as they make their way into and through the world they live in.
Despite being wide-ranging in tone and scope, however, the show is seamlessly stitched together by the fluid production of director Carrie Cracknell and designer Vicki Mortimer, and brought to life in particular by its lead performers.
May, played by an impeccably expressive Anne-Marie Duff, follows oil money wherever it takes her; inspired by the discovery of kerosene, she is first a lonely maid in a far-away exploited land, growing into a senior executive of an international oil company and ultimately becoming an MP who votes in favour of the Iraq War.
Late-blooming Yolanda Kettle, playing May’s daughter Amy – their names of course being acronyms of each other – convincingly portrays the character as following her mother unwillingly, protesting rebelliously, but ending up taking care of her and admitting their co-dependence when the burning oil sun begins to set at last.
“My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel.” is the underlying message in the play as a whole, as well as the constant struggle a mother faces when she realizes the current misuse of natural resources is jeopardizing the future of the next generations.
This work is so rich in conceptualization that the spectators can hardly realize how mesmerizing the acting and dialogue is. Time repeats itself in patterns that reveal an obsessive precision for the details in the unfolding of the plot. Everything is so intelligently thought-out that it’s almost scary.
Key sentences linger on the mouths of different actors between scenes, re-stating the same concepts in different forms. The acting is so captivating that it’s hard to tell the story apart from the actors themselves as they translucently mimic what happens in the script, essentially becoming one with the characters to an impressive degree.
For example, Duff (pictured above) doesn’t age so much as she exhausts herself, slowly burning out like oil in a lamp. She becomes cold and bitter like the world around her, as she gave up her love and her beliefs in order to obtain power; just like humanity turns cold as imperialism forgets ethics and shrivels everything pure into a competition.
Similarly, Amy takes on the image of what May used to be as Amy and May switch roles throughout the play, one becoming the other. In this way, the two characters showcase how history repeats itself and how we incessantly look for different answers in the same questions over and over again, unable to learn from the past.
The FT’s Ian Shuttleworth recently said Oil combines the “distorted time-scheme” of Cloud Nine, “the alter-ego-ish [character] names” of Beckett’s Footfalls and the “general ambition, scope and register” of Zinnie Harris, and it’s difficult not to agree. Audacious, daring and imaginative, it is a mosaic of bits and pieces put together on stage and then respectively in the spectators’ minds.
Labyrinthine and convulsing, this is a play which sucks you into an intriguing yet confusing parallel world. It presents us with a storm of concepts and images which are not easy for everyone to understand, resulting at times in a confused mix and match of what is abstract and what is concrete that forces the audience to reflect on what they’ve seen long after the curtains close.
Yet as enigmatic as it may be, at the end of the day Oil does what a good piece of art should always do: make you think.