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‘This is huge’: time-bending play charts the history of oil

Oil is one of the great villains of the 21st century but try living a day without it. You can avoid driving, sure, but banish oil from your life and you’ll be without toothpaste, bank cards, garbage bags and aspirin. You’ll probably have to go barefoot, and you’ll definitely have to avoid crossing asphalt. You can forget about your phone, of course.

Oil is so present in our lives that it’s easy to forget how recently it entered them. It was only in the latter half of the 1800s that we found any use for the stuff, yet its history since has defined the course of the modern era. A new production at Red Stitch Actors Theatre attempts to chart this history through the story of a mother and daughter whose fortunes are inextricably bound to the rise and demise of the black gold.

‘‘Petrol and oil are so central to our lives,’’ says director Ella Caldwell. “The commodities and the comfort that we have are entirely dependent on oil. Everything. We don’t really reflect on that. Until I started working on the play I had nowhere near the amount of knowledge about just how dependent we are. I don’t know if I could get through an hour of the day the way I function normally without oil.’’

Playwright Ella Hickson has created a contemporary Lear in her central female character. Credit:Getty Images

When it premiered in London, British playwright Ella Hickson’s Oil was a sensation. It’s an epic spanning more than 160 years, leaping from Cornwall to present-day Iraq and decades into the future, tackling geopolitical upheavals through the most personal of stories. It also features a heroine who presents one of the most demanding and rewarding roles of this century.
We first meet May in pre-industrial Cornwall, pregnant and married into a family as hard as the conditions they face. With only candles for light and fire for cooking, life before oil is brutal, freezing, racked by hunger and cloaked in darkness.

As the use of oil spreads, however, we meet May again at pivotal moments in its voyage. She’s on the ground when the British empire takes on the Middle East at the start of the 20th century, and running her own petroleum company as we hit peak oil in the 1970s. When we find her today, her relationship with oil is as fraught as our own and 30 years from now we see her world has transformed once more in fascinating and provocative ways.

If the chronology sounds out of whack, yes, May lives for more than a century and a half without ageing. Her daughter Amy does, too, while other characters echo those of different eras in the play, or even seem to reincarnate them. It’s a device that has drawn comparisons to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but here it allows Hickson a canvas bigger than any one lifetime while centring on very recognisable relationships.

I had to do it. It’s the role of a lifetime.

The scope of the play focuses on five distinct periods from our past and future, presenting a great challenge for anyone staging it. ‘‘It’s five worlds that we’re exploring,’’ Caldwell says. ‘‘So that takes a huge amount of in-depth research and building of each world, almost as if they were five whole different plays to explore.’’

Daniela Farinacci had just come off an MTC show when Caldwell approached her about the play. She was reluctant to read it, hoping instead for a break from work. ‘‘But I read it and went ‘oh my giddy aunt, this is huge’. I tried to not do it. I really did try to talk myself and everyone around me out of it. But it got under my skin. Like oil, it seeped in. So that I couldn’t sleep without thinking about it. It sounds like I’m exaggerating but it actually was that. I had to do it. It’s the role of a lifetime.’’

She’s not overstating things when she compares the role to Lear. ‘‘Roles come at certain times in your life. I play May from 20-something right through to possibly her 80s – we just call it ancient – and it feels right. It’s good timing. I’m glad I’m where I’m at in terms of my own life experience and my professional experience. It’s big. It’s like playing King Lear. You can’t be playing Lear when you’re 30. You’ve got to be at a certain point in life.’’

Daniela Farinacci and director Ella Caldwell survey the history of a 21st-century villain in Oil. Credit:Justin McManus

Farinacci now has a wall at home covered in research. ‘‘I am a bit of a prepare-freak. Everyone has different ways to get to where they need to go but with this one, I feel I needed to come into rehearsal with a strong sense of (May’s) journey. The flow from one stage to the next. I spent a week on each part to fill myself up with the history and politics of that time and gathering images.’’

Much of the sophistication of the play lies in the intricacy of the relationship between May and her daughter as it evolves over time. It’s not as simple as mirroring our own relationship with oil, but the co-dependency, power struggles and short-sighted decisions do resonate between the macro- and micro-territories the play explores.

‘‘It’s why the play’s so brilliant in not having any black and white,’’ Caldwell says. ‘‘May is a heroine, she’s a visionary, and yet she’s also at moments a villain.’’

Farinacci says: ‘‘The writing is supreme in that it has somehow managed to find this balance between making these symbolic connections but also allows May to be very human. ‘‘There’s a contradiction. But it doesn’t feel didactic.’’

The size of the play has meant that Red Stitch has made a rare venture beyond its intimate St Kilda home, instead staging the work at the much larger Cromwell Road Theatre in Prahran. If getting used to a new venue wasn’t enough, Oil also asks anyone staging it to employ only power sources that were available in the era being presented.

‘‘It has been really thrilling,’’ Caldwell says. ‘‘It is a big challenge to work with entirely natural light or by candlelight. It’s an entirely different process in terms of the directorial process, because you need to shape the story with the light you have available.’’

Limitations can be a gift, she says. ‘‘As light sources become more abundant and more available, it’s a beautiful reflection of how May’s own power progresses. That is paralleled by how her relationship with Amy and her trajectory in the world peaks right at the point when we’re at the peak of our relationship with the oil industry. Which is also when we have the most available light.’’

Oil is at Cromwell Road Theatre from November 12.

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