This is a hard hitting, often quick witted and thought-provoking production. A play with the title “Oil” interested me. That it managed to span the arrival of kerosene in the 1800s all the way to a post-apocalyptic future, while taking in questions of race, gender, class, colonialism and family relationships, left me mind-blown. If you are planning on going to see the play — and I would recommend you do — it might be best to stop reading now. The less you know what to expect the better.
The play starts on a farm in Cornwall in 1889, where we are introduced to May (Anne-Marie Duff). She is young, newly married and pregnant, living with her husband’s farming family. Their lives are hard. A surprise visit by an American salesman one night brings the possibility of light — fuelled by kerosene.
When the kerosene lamp is placed on the kitchen table illuminating the dark it evokes the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby — where new inventions bring enlightenment but provoke different reactions from those looking on. For May the arrival of oil opens up new possibilities and is to be embraced.
The next scene could not be more different. Fast forward to Persia in 1908. The potential of oil has been discovered and the British are in Iran to ensure control of this precious resource. I found this scene particularly hard hitting as colonial attitudes, racism and sexism are explored in fast moving ways, challenging your perceptions of the characters.
And so the play continues as May and her daughter Amy are catapulted through history into world momentous events shaped by oil, or more accurately, the control of oil.
Woven into this historic sweep is the daily life of the mother and daughter as they grow older. The changing role of women is highlighted — new freedoms are gained but the choices women have to make, particularly when it comes to relationships, career and family, are still restricted.
Throughout the play cultural references, music and evocative imagery are used. It comes full circle at the end when May and Amy return to the farm in Cornwall at some future point in time. The questions of light and energy still dominate but now there are new possibilities offered by another surprise visit.
There is so much that this play brings up that I am sure anyone going to see it will be left with different questions and insights. It leaves you with much to reflect on.