We live in the age of oil. We have never lived without it, and we take it for granted. Ella Hickson’s fiery new play addresses the importance of renewable energy, but includes a hell of a lot more in its wide scope. Hickson examines the background of oil through history, the cost of imperialism and attitudes towards progress, including, notably, the rise of female independence.
We first meet May (Anne-Marie Duff) as a young, pregnant farmer’s wife in Cornwall, 1889. She is deeply in love but cold, hungry and dissatisfied. Her mother-in-law (Ellie Haddington) asks why she thinks she deserves to be warm when the sun isn’t shining. But she does – she wants to be warm and she doesn’t want to spend her days breaking ice-filled troughs so the animals can drink. So when a charismatic American salesman shows up to their cold, candlelit home with a kerosene lamp, something sparks in May. Her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale) refuses to sell the farm for a great deal of money, proclaiming that his family will always work this land and always be self-sufficient, so May, seeing an opportunity, escapes. She chases oil across history. We see her waitressing in imperial Tehran in 1908 with her now ten-year-old daughter, Amy (Yolanda Kettle); she shows up next in Hampstead 1970, a senior figure at an international oil company, under threat from Libya who want to reclaim control of their resources. May is struggling both at home and at work. Amy, now fifteen-years-old, is fiercely critical of her mother’s line of work and eager to escape her clutches.
The beauty lies in the way Hickson marries the different oil crises with the cracks in May’s personal life. She is offered a ‘happy ever after’ with a man more than once and turns it down to pursue oil, to constantly better herself, and ‘to leave more for her daughter than she was given’, despite the fact that she is leaving her child, as we all are, fewer natural resources than she started with. Anne-Marie Duff is simply outstanding in the challenging role of May. She shows the damage May’s sacrifices have caused her with a brief moment of vulnerability, a deadness of the eyes. May is a complex character, not giving in to the rules of time. She ages slowly over a period of more than 150 years. She is one woman and she is many. She is full of contradictions, never satisfied, trapped in a prison of her own creation – a truly thrilling female character.
However, May’s hard-line self-sufficient approach impacts her relationship with Amy considerably. In one poignant scene, fifteen-year-old Amy’s boyfriend dumps her because May scares him off. Amy is destined for better things than silly relationships, she says. She must have her eyes on her goals in the world. But as May teaches Amy how to push love away, both end up lonely, bitter and cold. Their relationship is suffocating, intense, full of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The two characters are inextricably linked (and not just because each name is one typo away from being the other). They have the same ‘wild’ in their eyes. Amy’s fight for change is almost an inversion of May’s. They both run away to chase what they want and never quite find it. At the end, Amy seems to become May, the same person reborn in a different period of time. Hickson shows us history repeating itself, both on a global scale and within a tiny family unit. We don’t learn from our mistakes: we pass them on.
The play returns to Cornwall in 2051. May is cold again, this time with Amy by her side. A Chinese businesswoman knocks on the door, offering them the latest source of energy – made from helium harvested from the moon. Our one-sided version of imperialism is shattered in the face of a new kind of imperialism; history comes back to look at itself.
This is a bold and exceptionally ambitious piece of theatre, one that Hickson pulls off with aplomb. The script is intelligent, sensitive and thoroughly researched. Carrie Cracknell directs, with her usual fluidity and style. Vicki Mortimer’s design, which uses archive footage to create the sense of speeding through time, is spot on, alongside Lucy Carter’s imaginative lighting and Stuart Earl’s rousing composition.
Oil is unusual and surprising, playing with form and structure in an exciting way. Ella Hickson has achieved something of a masterpiece here; something that will undoubtedly divide audiences but will leave them thinking for a long, long time after the curtain has gone down.