Theatre review: Oil, Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney

An historical play that explores the fault lines of colonialism, empire and capitalism.
Oil. Image is of a older grey haired woman in glasses and bulky padded yellow/green coat, who is pointing at a prism, which is also being looked at by a younger woman in similar attire with shortish brown hair and kneeling down.

Oil is a meditation on extractive relationships and the toll they take – both on people and the Earth, foregrounding mothers and daughters. Starring an ensemble cast led by Brooke Satchwell, who displays remarkable magnetism in her transition to the stage, and directed by Paige Rattray, who inventively transforms STC’s refurbished Wharf 1 Theatre into a dynamic, in-the-round experience – Ella Hickson’s play gallops across space and time. 

Set designer, Emma White, vividly evokes to perfection a multipurpose living/dining room within a black cube with each temporal jump, be it Industrial Revolution Great Britain or the late 20th century Middle East. Dark sands threaten the audience, and their white runners, as they take their seats. Paul Jackson’s lighting contrasts sharply from dingy candlelight, to the seeming magical gas, to the phenomenally blinding electric.   

It’s an enjoyable spectacle, if overlong and hard to follow. There is a leap of imagination required to sustain attention to this epic, speculative fiction. However, fans of the conceptual will most likely enjoy the strongly consistent, if slightly overcooked, thematic of exploitation. It is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, without the linearity, but still clinging vaguely to historical accuracy.

Oil is enriching, but also quixotically untrustworthy. People will do bad things to each other. Greed begets greed. Lazy cruelty is symptomatic of the human condition. It’s not revelatory, but whenever Satchwell is onstage it becomes less of a teenage interpretation of Shakespeare, as she is a confident and assured anchor, making every new and wild scenario more believable. 

To the point of plot, there is and isn’t one? Colonial figurines are not explicitly linked to the imminent peril in which the world now finds itself due to climate change, even though the scenes turn to unjust war, dictatorship and global apathy. It is almost as though Hickson and Rattray are gasping to make a point, and then choke. A Colonel (Benedict Samuel) is a strutting villain and some telegraph from the future appears (Jing-Xuan Chan) to say … be warned? 

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The nine-strong cast all are perfectly competent with material that lacks a focus, except “oil”, as if that’s a mantra. The production design is delightful, the actors all commendably excellent, the play is a niche market for those who like it loose, weird and fancy-free.

Oil by Ella Hickson
Wharf 1 Theatre
Walsh Bay, Sydney

Director: Paige Rattray
Set Designer: Emma White
Costume Designer: David Fleischer
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: Clemence Williams
Assistant Director: Nicole Pingon
Fight, Movement and Intimacy Director: Nigel Poulton
Farsi Language Consultant: Maryam Evans

Cast: Saif Alawadi, Violette Ayad, Jing-Xuan Chan, Callan Colley, Charlotte Friels, Josh McConville, Benedict Samuel, Brooke Satchwell, Damien Strouthos, Anne Tenney

Oil will be performed until 16 December 2023.

Anna Westbrook is an interdisciplinary queer feminist storyteller, critic, creative producer, poet, and freelance educator, currently working on her second novel and a collection of essays. She has a PhD in writing from the University of New South Wales and is the author of Dark Fires Shall Burn.