It’s not a velvet curtain that rises on Grid Iron’s Crude, but a great roll of corrugated iron. It ascends with an industrial grind and clatter, opening the doorway to Shed No 39, a warehouse on the Port of Dundee estate, a little-seen landscape of cranes, exploration rigs and fiercely lit ships.
As we step inside, our path is laid out between two rows of safety helmets, their clean white surfaces picked out by Paul Claydon’s low-level lighting, drawing us across an empty expanse towards a stage of gantries, cages and oil drums. An abseiler dangles from the cavernous ceiling, figures flit past in hi-vis jackets and digits race upwards on the back wall, counting the barrels of oil extracted from the earth since the performance began (answer: a lot).
It takes a space this enormous to get the measure of writer/director Ben Harrison’s theme: oil, the liquid gold with its vast profits, vast risks and vast environmental costs; oil, the black stuff without which we would have neither chairs to sit on nor lights to see; oil, our dirty secret, our addiction, our drug.
“There’s such a profound complicity that it’s like a global addiction of which we’re all part,” says Harrison, the morning after the performance. “The first off-shore worker I interviewed said, ‘Look around this room. Everything is oil-derived: the chair, the table, even contact lenses …’ There’s an analogy with drugs: if there was no demand for cocaine, then there’d be no problem in Colombia.”
The theme is in the air. Just opened at London’s Almeida theatre is Oil by Ella Hickson (who, by coincidence, worked with Harrison on The Authorised Kate Bane in 2012); Dundee Rep’s revival of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is out on the road; and the Mark Wahlberg/Kurt Russell true-life disaster movie Deepwater Horizon is in cinemas. “It’s extraordinary,” says Harrison. “That’s four projects on the theme of oil you can see in the UK this week.”
Staged by a company famed for its site-responsive theatre, Crude is at its best when it transcends the human scale, with Lewis den Hertog’s excellent video projections splashing across the sheet-metal surfaces of Becky Minto’s set, while an oily aerialist spins on chains and the seven-strong cast strike up a raucous song.
Harrison’s script is a collage of thematically linked scenes that merge the personal and the political. Oil seeps its way in to the private lives of the North Sea rig workers on their rotating cycle of restraint and excess (two weeks lost at sea, two weeks lost at home). It fuels unrest in Nigeria, where profit and pollution go hand in hand. It leads to triumphs for the money men and tragedy for the 167 who died in the explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in 1988. “The subject is so vast I couldn’t have made a well-made play that convincingly had the reach,” says Harrison. “It had to be this collage.”
With its geographical leaps and collision of theatrical forms, Crude has the kaleidoscopic quality of a Robert Lepage production. Switching from Pennsylvania to the Niger Delta to an Aberdeen airport hotel, it flits between verbatim drama, agitprop caricature, soap-opera dilemma and political thriller.
And like a Lepage show in its early stages, it feels like there’s room for growth, something Harrison is ready for. “I can imagine doing more work on it, yes,” he says, already looking into the possibility of a transfer. “The oil story is changing every day. Who knows, it’s quite possible within a few months we’ll be back in boom time and the play could shift to reflect that. I like the idea of refining the shows.