Black Swan’s Oil follows the lives of May and her daughter, Amy, from the beginning of humanity’s oil consumption to its predicted end. Writer Ella Hickson maps out their struggles for fuel, money, and common ground in this deeply intellectual yet emotional play.
We first meet May, pregnant with Amy, on a farm in Cornwall, struggling through the household jobs in freezing weather along with her husband, Joss, and an extended family including his mother, a brutally practical woman who introduces one of the themes of the play: “your problem is you believe you deserve to be warm even when the sun isn’t shining.”
The small kitchen with grey stone walls and flickering lighting, set inside the larger, blacked out expanse of the stage, is cramped and overwhelming to the senses, especially as more members of the family come home and male violence threatens to boil over. Zoë Atkinson’s brilliant set design, Matthew Marshall’s subtly effective lighting, the heavy period costumes, and thick Cornish accents (passable, but I don’t think my Cornish dad would be impressed) all contribute to a claustrophobic environment that May is understandably desperate to escape. The kerosene salesman who enters their home and brings with him the beginning of the Age of Oil shines a light literally and metaphorically for May, showing her a different way.
Her escape is narrated by her husband, as is the change between each later scene, so instead of seeing her leave her beloved husband we hear from Joss how she “walks through lands, through empires, through time” into Tehran and the beginning of the British Empire’s taking over of the Middle East. The set has expanded to a luxurious, long, red-wallpapered function room where British Officers charm Middle Eastern oil merchants, and May works with eight-year-old Amy in tow. This is where the core relationship between mother and daughter emerges, and May’s fierce love and desperation to protect Amy begins to steer the plot. As a reliance on oil begins to grip humanity, so an intense co-dependence emerges between mother and child.
Violette Ayad, Abbey Morgan, Hayley McElhinney. Photo by Daniel J Grant
This relationship reaches its peak in the next scene in the 1970s, where May manages a petroleum company and tries to manage her hot-headed, sixteen-year-old, conservationist daughter. What starts with a hysterically awkward sexual encounter in the kitchen between Amy and her hippie boyfriend turns into a frustratingly realistic fight between Amy and May. The self-righteous and vicious argument, the kind that can only happen between a mother and her teenage daughter, is exacerbated by the development of “troubles” in Libya near the company’s oil mines, and May’s choice to prioritise profits over the country’s right to their land. Ella Hickson’s snappy dialogue is beautifully performed by Hayley McElhinney as May and Abbey Morgan as Amy. The scene is raw and heartbreaking, exposing the nerves of a fractious mother-daughter relationship, and the deep, unending love that binds them, despite seemingly irreparable personal differences. There’s not a lot in the play one could take home in the way of parenting tips, but the line that keeps coming back to me is “if you loved you as much as I love you, you wouldn’t let you fuck him either.”
Mandy McElhinney. Photo Daniel J Grant
The second act takes place in an imagined future, the end of the age of oil, and the original set of the cramped stone farmhouse returns in the final scene, this time with armchairs and ambiguously aged May and Amy wrapped up in winter coats, bickering about whether they can afford more fuel to heat a bath. The return of the tiny set emphasizes the receding of the comfort and life of excess provided by reliance on oil, and the return to personal farming methods and the anxiety for survival that dominated May’s early life.
A futuristic salesperson who echoes the original kerosene-seller, played delightfully by Grace Chow, visits to show them the new world’s energy provider, based on small nuclear reactions between elements harvested from the moon. The extended lifetimes of May and Amy, from the late 1800s to 2051, gives the play a large scope to explore relation to the rise and fall of oil, but it does rather muddle the end of the play, where May’s age and level of independence is unclear, and therefore the nature of their dependence on each other is hazy. The pacing is lost somewhat in the final scene, where the ambiguity about the world and their situation – resulting, no doubt, from a reluctance to commit to specific details of our immediate future – made this scene slightly underwhelming, even confusing. Nevertheless, Miss Fan Wang’s assurances that there is so much helium-3 to be mined from the moon without running out is a stark reminder of the cyclical nature of humanity’s consumption needs, and rounds off the story with a punch.
Abbey Morgan, Grace Chow, Hayley McElhinney. Photo by Daniel J Grant
While Oil has an environmentalist message at its heart, it opts out of lecturing on the literal impacts of mining and oil consumption, instead playing out the drama of Western countries’ dependency on oil-production through the toxic relationship between mother and daughter. It is brutally honest, funny, and intellectual, leaving everyone with something to mull over on the journey home.
Oil presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company is on now through to Nov 27.