Oil, Ella Hickson’s new play starring Anne-Marie Duff, is about mothers, daughters and climate change. Hannah Dunleavy spoke to its director Carrie Cracknell about that potent mix.
The first thing that strikes me about Oil is that it’s written by a woman, directed by a woman and has a woman in the starring role. Is that still as unusual as it sounds?
It’s still really unusual to have a woman as the protagonist of a play, but they are becoming increasingly common. And there is an enormous demand because people do want to watch plays about women.
What I really love about Oil is that it stars two women. There’s a really fantastic moment at the end when they both come out and take their bow together and it makes me realise that, of course, a lot of our classic female protagonists in plays have all men surrounding them.
What’s really thrilling about Oil is watching an evolving relationship between a mother and daughter. Which is such a complex and defining relationship for all women, whether as the child or as the parent. It’s unbelievably surprising we’ve not seen more work exploring that relationship.
There’s a genuine energy about the production because of that. And already, within the audience, I can see some quite distinct responses and it feels as though this is a play that is really, really speaking to women. It’s quite palpable within the auditorium. Which is really exciting.
Is there a still a lack of women in theatre directing?
There are more and more female directors in UK theatres. Brilliant directors. I think the lag is much larger in film and television but my instinct is there are really strong female directors working more and more. I think there’s a real desire to explore both the everyday and extraordinary experiences of women.
“There is a sense of collective denial, or collective disinterest in really wrangling with scarcity. And the damage that oil causes.”
There’s still quite a lag in the number of women reviewing theatre too, isn’t there?
Yes, it sometimes feels very strange to make work that is dealing with your own experience and those of other women, and then to understand that this is critiqued by a very male gaze. It’s quite a complicated dynamic sometimes.
The subject matter of Oil, the environment, has been put on the backburner as an issue in recent years. Is it something that’s close to your heart?
My generation of theatre makers have been trying to look for ways to deal with the really big issues facing us. Primarily, climate change, other political issues and feminism. And what becomes complicated, particularly with climate change, is that the scale of it is overwhelming.
It’s very hard to understand or see it through individual stories. It’s a world problem and we have to act collectively. And in a way, the essence of that is counter to the individual story arc, which is how we understand the world around us.
There’s a really conflicted dynamic and I think that’s why story tellers have found it really difficult to find an access point or a framework through which to understand it.
What’s interesting about this play is that it doesn’t deal directly with that, it deals more with our co-dependency on oil and the things we’ve done in order to get it. And what is really fascinating about it is how Ella (Hickson, the play’s writer) has continued the mother-daughter metaphor and the co-dependency in that relationship, to our relationship with oil and with the Middle East.
So there’s a constant marriage between the human and the political. And I think, although it’s a complicated piece to watch, she’s really caught on to something, using an individual or emotional struggle to express bigger ideas.
A very big part of the play is the sense of not knowing and not thinking. There’s a brilliant moment in the first act where the oil salesman comes into Cornwall and says to the family he is trying to buy the lands from, “There’s always more water, there’s always more trees in the forest.” And it looks forward to the future completely naively, of course, and there’s a shadow because we know, of course, 100 years later we’re going to be in a very different situation.
And then in Act V, which is set in the future, there’s a salesman who comes to sell them cold fusion and is in complete denial about mining from the moon. And again, there’s this sense of “There aren’t going to be any dangers, there aren’t going to be any problems.” So there is a sense of collective denial. Or collective disinterest in really wrangling with scarcity. And the damage that oil causes.
That’s one of the things I found more interesting in this work. We’ve talked a lot about blind spots and how this is a community of people shutting out things they don’t want to think about.
How have you found working with the brilliant Anne-Marie Duff?
She is brilliant and extraordinary, and such a courageous, playful, generous actress. And she’s really made the project possible because it’s not a straightforward piece of work. It has all these time jumps, so you never have previous circumstances to play.
Normally, you get 20 minutes or so to establish the character and then you are in a continuum, so the person you are grows and evolves. And with this play they are always leaping into a new time zone and trying to make sense of who that character is in that moment. And she’s done that with such wildness and exuberance that it’s really supported the rest of the company.
She’s one of so many brilliant women in that age bracket working in the UK and we’re really blessed that they want to work in films, television and theatre. I think what really exciting is that increasingly there are plays being written for women in lead roles. It feels like it’s really starting to come to life now.
Oil is on at the Almeida, London, until 26 November.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.