Hilary Jennings interviews playwright Ella Hickson about her play ‘Oil’.
Hilary Jennings of Transition Town Tooting and Transition Network recently saw Ella Hickson’s explosive play Oil and was fascinated by it. It follows the lives of one woman and her daughter in an epic, hurtling collision of empire, history and family, and drills deep into the world’s relationship with this finite resource.
It premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London, in October 2016, in a production directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Anne-Marie Duff (here is a review from the Independent). Hilary was so taken with the play that she later sat down with Ella to explore the play, and her response to it, in more depth.
Here is the trailer for the play, to give you a sense of it…
Ella … what led you to write a play about oil?
I started writing the play about six years ago. My father has worked in the oil industry his whole life, as an engineer, but oddly that was a secondary concern.
A more central concern was a feeling that our freedom in the West was based on something that was finite. That was interesting to me. That and our guilty and inversely indulgent relationship with using it and how you manage your feelings around using it …she says … having walked out the flat this morning leaving the heating on, got on the bus and not having time to go back. And I won’t be back tonight so it’s a full 24 hours my heating is going to be on today without anyone being there. Which is bad isn’t it? That’s pretty bad…
"I didn’t want it to be an ‘environmental’ play, I was very clear about that. I didn’t want it to be proselytising or moralistic contemporary thing".
So your father was in the oil industry for many years. Was there a sudden realisation you needed to write about this subject?
I’d got the commission and knew I had to write something. At the beginning of your career there are a certain number of plays to write and you have to write them. The first draft I did in a really odd sort of fever dream and it was really painful and weird and much more interpersonal. It was just two women, the mother and daughter, in three different time periods which covered the full span of the age of oil. There was something instinctive that wanted to cover that much time and that was about freedom in some way and how bound you are to the generation before you.
Once I’d done this first draft I went off and did lots of research and made it much more factual and political. It grew politically but the heart and soul part of it, those bones, remained pretty solid.
So you went from an initial emotional response to research – a lot judging from the range of themes in the play?
There was lots of research. I started around oil and the oil industry, so The Quest and The Prize, the Daniel Yergin bibles, spoke to my Dad a lot about his time in the industry.
I had a funny relationship with peak oil and with the Transition movement (I read The Transition Handbook). I went to visit Colin Campbell [author of The Coming Oil Crisis] and spent three days in Ireland and spoke to him at length.
Speaking with Colin is incredible because he just knows everything there is to know. What’s difficult in other sources, in terms of OPEC numbers and documented information it’s very hard to get a rational sense of how much there is left whereas Colin has built his own independent log which is really great. Also just getting a sense from Colin of how passionate he was and how severe he felt the situation was. He was someone who really was in the know, so that was a real wake-up call.
I then had a really odd problem, because I didn’t want it to be an ‘environmental’ play, I was very clear about that. I didn’t want it to be about climate change. I didn’t want it to be proselytising or moralistic contemporary thing. I wanted to look at why we used what we did, and also to point out the celebratory aspects of all that, like the fact that oil has got us an awfully long way and that it has created an awful lot of progress and that there is something to be celebrated in that, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it in the first place. So the research became much more historical. The backbone of it was a book called Oil Politics by Francisco Parra, who used to be the Chairman of OPEC.
I was doing this odd balance between the Transition Movement, climate change kind of thread and another thread which was much more about the history of oil and how we’ve used it and the corporate, commercial, Rockerfeller side of things. So I just had to make my decisions I guess.
There are some great pieces of writing in the programme for the play…
I was really proud of the articles that the Almeida pulled together. The first, by an academic called Sarah Grochala, was brilliant and we talked a lot about the central metaphor of the play which is the Mother Child relationship speaking to the co-dependence of the West on its Eastern oil-producing countries. The others are also brilliant, like the End of Oil article about Detroit, sourced by the Almeida which showed a thorough understanding of the themes of the piece, and Dr Robbie McLaughlan’s piece ‘The Spoils of Empire’.
I loved the centrality of women in the play and the mother/daughter relationship. Could you expand a bit more about the role that narrative played through the play?
The mother/daughter dynamic was something that was right there in the first draft. I decided on it quite instinctively, I knew that I was going to have to cover 250 years, I knew that the use of global resources through, largely, one generation, but what will end up being three generations, had to have a conversation between an older and younger generation.
There were moments where it was going to be called Inheritance or Endowment. It is interesting that the world has a finite endowment of oil to hand on to its occupants and the mother has a finite endowment of skills and love and all that to hand on, so there was something about inheritance and a mother giving it’s children what it can give.
But I also quite quickly found this idea about co-dependency which is that our freedom in the West is bought with the sort of sacrificial enslavement of oil producing countries and that felt like motherhood, that the freedom is borne of this immense sacrifice and immense slavery to the freedom of another thing that you are then not meant to expect or require any sort of return from. It felt similar I guess.
I also had a strong sense parallels with our human relationship with earth, with mother earth, that the earth gives us so much but like a child we give it so little back.
Absolutely. Yes there’s also an ‘ages of man’ thing in it – birth and then childhood and tempestuous teenager and then the early 30s break for individualism and freedom, the sort of really denounced separateness, and then the sort of weird turn to home and yeah, you do feel that in our relationship with the earth.
It’s like the birth of the human race and then this kind of mad use of resources. At some stage the earth was looking after us in a sort of caring and natural way and now we’re rebellious and we got to an age where we started kicking the shit out of it and eventually it, yes it is that kind of thing. Yes I like that idea.
I once read about a study into what ‘age’ people believe the human race is. Apart from indigenous societies, most people identified that we were teenagers. Perhaps indigenous societies see themselves as more mature societies?
That’s really interesting. I think about that quite a lot, certainly in terms of nation states. I often think of America as a teenager, just in comparison to say, China, which is a grandfather. Do you see what I mean? The Chinese empire pre-dates the Roman empire so whilst we have been through the rise and fall of so many stages…. I love that, that we are a tempestuous teenager and haven’t learnt our lesson yet and that at some point we will. That sort of gives me hope. Having watched Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children at the Royal Court I went home feeling incredibly bleak about the world, but yeah, I like the idea that we might mature, if we’re still here we might learn our lesson.
My partner and I had a strong emotional response to the play. Mine was recognition and his was remorse. I’m interested to know what other responses your received?
Would you like to say a bit more about your response?
For me it was recognition of the mother/daughter relationship and myself and my mother. But also my relationship with the world. The play spoke to my understanding of what is happening in the world and there aren’t many things that you see in mainstream culture at the moment that speak to that. The story you told is not one that is in popular culture. It’s not really spoken of, so for me it was recognition at a personal level and of the bigger picture.
And the remorse?
I think that was remorse for what we have done and where we’ve got to. I’d be interested in what other responses it received and how you felt about them?
It’s always funny the responses to a play, you don’t have that much access to them. We’ve done a few after-show talks and there’s been a certain amount of anger, which has been quite a complicated anger, the idea that England, that Britain is at the end of its global dominance and that other powers will now rise and that we will take a global back seat has created quite a lot of anger.
And that particular position also tended to tally up with the anger at the idea of men disappearing from the narrative and women carrying it to the end. Just as the imperial and patriarchal point of view tend to sit side by side one would imagine.
What other responses?
Lots of very emotional ones. I know lots of single parent families or single child set-ups have found it very moving. It’s great that that narrative exists and that we haven’t seen it a lot. Lots of people found it quite bleak, scary about the future. There were lots of complicated questions about fusion [in the final scene of the play, set in the future, the development by China of power generated by fusion is a reality] and lots of people wanting to say that’s nonsense that final act isn’t it, it’s completely fantastical.
Lots of people came hoping it would be a play about the oil industry and were slightly disappointed. One review said that there’s not enough information in it and I thought that’s kind of odd because it’s quite, well, stuffed with information.
"At some stage the earth was looking after us in a sort of caring and natural way and now we’re rebellious and we got to an age where we started kicking the shit out of it".
In the piece in the programme by Sarah Grochala she talks about the world becoming a ‘colder, darker, smaller place’ which is her closing point. How did you react to having written this play and how do you feel about the future?
It’s really interesting because I’m now just about to embark on my next big play which is about globalisation and the retraction of globalisation either through climate change down to more smaller co-dependent units in the Transition ideal but also politically Trump is shutting down trade deals left right and centre, walls are going up, people are getting more entrenched in right-wing nationalism and you do feel that there is this retraction of the elastic band, that we have become so global, and enjoyed all the financial benefits of that global economy and now actually we’re starting to have to pay the price of the global economy which is of course refugees.
You can’t get the cheapest trainers in the world because there are no financial borders and then suddenly want to put your borders up again the second a refugee wants to come and find some space. Those two things are entirely intertwined and if you want the global economy and therefore the cheapest price in the world then you have to accept that there will be consequences.
So with that thing about a “smaller, darker place”– I do think that there is this sort of terrifying right wing fascination with re-nationalising, with retracting, with becoming more insular and I think it will probably win out, for whatever reason I think that instinct for self-protection in the face of change and threats is stronger than the sort of …. I would hope it isn’t …. but the utopian open-minded attempt to remain open and vulnerable and collaborative in the face of fear is terrifying for a lot of people. And that is politically what we’d need to do.
It’s difficult because there’s a really weird association – the Transition movement posits a kind of retraction to more local environments, retraction to more local communities, more of a co-dependent, smaller, relying on the land again. And tied into that interestingly, politically, is a sort of weird golden ages, backward-looking pastoral idyll. It’s funny that it’s a very left-wing movement but it sits in line with and can look appealing to a lot of quite right-wing protectionist positions.
That little rub, in the next 50 years is going to be very interesting, how do you recreate smaller communities that are co-dependent and better energy usage without allowing the political corollary of that which is everyone’s white, everyone’s from the same place, everyone’s ….. that’s going to be a very interesting problem that we’re going to face.