Grand in scope and intimate in detail, Ella Hickson’s 2016 play Oil is a given a suitably intense and immersive production for its Australian premiere at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre.
Opening night also brought a premiere of another kind, with the first presentation by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre at their new, additional home of Cromwell Road Theatre, South Yarra. Having been dark for several years, the characterful venue proves the ideal fit, with ample foyer and outdoor space, flexible performance space and comfortable seating. All this, plus easy street parking and the convenience of Hawksburn Station right next door. Utilisation of the two venues is sure to make this an exciting time of adaptation, growth and experimentation for the well-respected company.
Focusing on the intertwined themes of human power, political power and chemical power, Oil is a far more fascinating play than the somewhat dry title suggests. Hickson covers some 160 years with a set of five meaty, vignette-like scenes, each given room to breathe in the generous 180-minute running time (including interval). To link the threads, Hickson employs the conceit of a mother-daughter relationship that plays out in linear (if physically impossible) style across the decades.
The saga takes flight in arguably the most fully realised scene as the Singer family battles the cold, the dark and each other on their family farm in the dead of winter, 1889. An American salesman introduces the kerosene lamp, and if the innovation seems simple to the audience now, the effect is amplified at the play’s end, when a visiting Chinese saleswoman introduces cold fusion, fuelled by Helium isotopes sourced from the moon.
Across time, Hickson makes a case for the disconnect that derives from any technology that replaces sustenance supplied by one’s own land. The Singer family eats chicken and potatoes, the same meal that May and her daughter Amy cook from frozen packages, to less satisfying effect, in 1970. The eventual move away from oil is presented as a simple fact rather than a warning, with the inherent dangers of the world’s current reliance on oil consumption presented for their human cost rather than their impact on the environment.
Taking spark from Hickson’s sharp, emotionally charged writing, director Ella Caldwell brings an urgent sense of life to each of the five scenes. Vocal expression is particularly impressive in the extended opening scene, which is performed in the near dark of the candle-lit farmhouse. Aided by the close proximity afforded by the use of traverse seating, audience engagement in the storytelling is high, achieving a level of intimacy that would be far less effective in a traditional proscenium arch theatre.
Set designer Greg Clarke primarily makes use of handheld props and furniture, the effect all the more successful for his sparing choice of items. Costume designer Chloe Greaves authentically captures the feel of each period, also providing wardrobe flexible enough for May and Amy to change in plain sight as the decades pass.
Lighting plays a particularly crucial role in Oil, with the play calling for the use of fuels and styles suited to each era. Lighting designer Clare Springett impressively achieves a fully realised effect, with key features including the exotic lanterns of Tehran and the green fluorescent tubes of the 1970s. The atmosphere of each scene is further enhanced by the subtle, directional sound design of Daniel Nixon.
As indicated by their anagrammatic names, May and Amy are essentially two versions of the same person. Their story plays out from May’s time as a lustful, pregnant young woman, through Amy’s childhood and rebellious teens, with May finally the child again in old age. As the years pass, the importance of men in their lives falls away until they are ultimately left dependent on each other (and all the better for it).
Rarely off stage, Daniela Farinacci distils May’s intensity into her piercing facial expression, doling out May’s power in finely calibrated increments. Where a lesser actress would be left chewing the scenery, her bag of tricks empty halfway through the play, Farinacci maintains an aura of mystery and magnetism, keeping the audience hanging on her every word.
With a higher profile on the musical theatre stage, Hannah Fredericksen is a revelation in the dramatic role of Amy. Taking the character from adorable eight-year-old to headstrong teen to self-assured young woman, Fredericksen vibrantly complements Farinacci, the pair capturing the shifting sands of mother-daughter dynamics with fascinating complexity.
Matthew Whitty captures the bubble of self-doubt beneath the glossy surface of a British soldier in 1908. Jing-Xuan Chan captures the sly sense of smug satisfaction of an emerging super power in traveling salesperson Fan Wang. Over the brief space of a single scene, Jennifer Vuletic makes old Ma Singer a force to be reckoned with.
As compelling as it is entertaining, Oil is an auspicious first production at this new venue for Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre.
Oil plays at Cromwell Road Theatre, Melbourne until 15 December 2019.
Photos: John Lloyd Fillingham