Arctic Oil is a new play by Clare Duffy, commissioned by the University of Edinburgh and Traverse Theatre, although precisely what the brief entailed becomes less apparent as the plot progresses. Swinging between a critique of human heedlessness of climate change, and a study of close personal relationships under the pressure of families growing apart, Duffy does not settle on the political comment that the title implies.
The play begins with a tense exchange between a mother and her adult daughter as the latter prepares to leave their island home for the first time since the birth of her two-year old son. From this, the play opens out into a highly political and emotionally charged assessment of the role of individuals in a world changing rapidly under man-made environmental devastation. However, this element of the story is subsumed by a return to the focus on intimate relationships and an unexpected rejection of climate justice as the primary motive behind the daughter’s passion.
Despite the resolution bearing away from what I had expected of this piece, the story is deeply resonant and imbued with important perceptions, both personal and on current global issues. The entire play took place within the setting of a bathroom, giving the audience a voyeuristic role and establishing a sensation of confinement which became a major theme of the work. Issues of motherhood, isolation, and intergenerational divides were the governing conflicts in the dialogue and these emphasised the human connections that are inherently at stake within the changing political geography of a post-oil era.
The soundscape was minimal, camouflaged as natural sound or played unobtrusively quietly to heighten the play’s realist conventions, aided by the clever use of a minimal but familiar and evocative set. Costumes were politically charged, prompting discussion on the privilege of choosing to wear clothes that reflect a lower socioeconomic status rather than dressing to express earned social mobility. The initially presented idea of the impossibility of different generations seeing eye-to-eye eventually wore thin, and a reunification of sorts was reached, though not before violence and words were used to inflict mutual wounds.
With all of these factors of political and social commentary coming into play, I was somewhat disappointed when the focus on wider issues shifted back to a seemingly unrelated twist in the personal realm. Unfortunately, it was on this superfluous note that the performance ended, leaving the audience feeling that something more was surely to come. However, the play’s focus on familial relationships provided a powerful lens through which to explore themes of love and loss within the context of a changing modern world. Despite its eventual way-laying of wider topics, this was an extremely powerful play and far-reaching in its appeal, as evidenced by the broad demographic of audience members, including a significant number of teenagers. Duffy, through portraying a critical and immediately important dialogue between generations, is bringing into the conversation younger voices for whom the prospect of climate change makes this play hugely relevant.
Overall, the play deals beautifully and sensitively with many difficult themes, keeping the audience invested in its often harrowing and uncomfortable topics. As a realist exploration of an all-too-real situation, this play fails only in ending on a note that highlights the gravity of its message, but still delivers a vital critique of contemporary blindness to plights beyond the personal sphere.
IMAGES: Roberto Ricciuti