Oil seems to us a fact of life: Having never known a world without it, we take it as a given and we take it for granted. Ella Hickson’s audacious stage epic, “Oil,” tilts time on its axis to serve an alarming redress. Half a century from now, many of us will outlive the earth’s oil. A beguiling timeline of the black stuff, “Oil” reframes history as biography, following one mother and daughter through the entire Age of Oil, discovery to depletion: One hundred and fifty million years in the making, burned off in less than 200.
Hickson’s play, premiering at the Almeida Theater, hurtles through history. A story that starts in 1889 on a cold Cornish farm speeds through a century, then on into the next. May Singer (Anne-Marie Duff) lives through it all, not impossibly old but impossibly young. She ages at a glacial pace: a young expectant mother in Victorian times is middle-aged eighty years later, and still yet to hit menopause in 2021.
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For all that May’s out of sync with real time, she’s always in sync with history. This frozen young woman, toiling by candlelight to keep a family farm, becomes a maid in imperial Persia. Two decades later after she left her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale), father of her unborn child, to chase an American oilman (Sam Swann), she’s flirting with an army officer in front of her 10-year-old. A suited oil executive living in Hampstead by 1970, fending off Libyan land grabs, May’s a Member of Parliament five years from now, having voted through the Second Iraq War. Her life takes her wherever oil money leads. Her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) protests as she follows.
Refined over six years, “Oil” is an alluring theatrical gesture, staged in style by Carrie Cracknell and designer Vicki Mortimer. With echoes of the TEAM’s performance piece “Mission Drift” and David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas,” Hickson zooms in and out. She can sweep through the decades then fixate on a bra-strap that won’t come undone. Each scene is beautifully embedded in its time and place, no exposition or explanation necessary. “Oil” lets us time travel, giving us a gods-eye view of our own little lives.
May’s a mystical figure – both historical and transcendent, one woman and many. She obeys some unities and disobeys others, simultaneously real and metaphorical. At some level, for example, she’s always her daughter: Amy becomes May over and over, ethics giving in to enterprise again and again. Hickson shows how history repeats itself as human nature stays the same. Mothers only ever want the best for their daughters, not the world. In a very real sense, love drives us to destruction. May always has blood on her hands.
“Oil” also shows other histories at play, from the rise of women in the world to the wane of the British Empire. (Even unintentionally, it’s one helluva Brexit play.) Power seems no less finite a resource, and as May grows in stature, the play’s men recede. Sex seems to dry up, and with it, so does May. Duff doesn’t age so much as exhaust herself. Youthful and fresh-faced at the start, she grows pallid and gaunt and increasingly alone. Kettle’s Amy, meanwhile, grows into standing her ground, and there’s super support from Tom Mothersdale and Brian Ferguson as the good men that May leaves behind.
In the end, sadly, “Oil” burns itself out. Hickson struggles with speculation, and the further the play drills into the future, the more flippant it seems. Even Cracknell and Mortimer’s fluid, languid staging can’t get past an awkward blow-out, but overall “Oil” is a rich reservoir.