Neil Cooper for The Herald
Drilling for the essence of theatrical experience
IN AN upstairs room in Leith, Grid Iron theatre company are going for gold. The prize is the Edinburgh-based company’s latest site-specific extravaganza, Crude, a dramatic study of oil, the slippery substance that powers the world, making some people very rich. For those on the frontline, the human cost sometimes proves even greater.
This is easy to see in the mock up of a hotel bar and bedroom where a one-night tryst between characters played by Phil McKee and Kirsty Stuart takes place. There are brief monologues from survivors of oil rig disasters such as the one that happened in 1988 when an explosion destroyed the North Sea Piper Alpha rig and killed 167 people, including two rescue workers. A memorial to those who died sits in Hazelhead Park in Aberdeen.
In another scene, McKee’s character is tied to a chair and tortured. Inbetween, a man in a stetson called Texas Jim swaggers about like J.R. Ewing, the slickly devious oil tycoon played by Larry Hagman in overblown 1980s TV drama, Dallas. To an outside eye, the scenarios are hard to piece together at this stage, though they do demonstrate the expansive spread of an oil industry that pervades our everyday lives whether we realise it or not.
“Oil isn’t just about what you put in the car,” says Grid Iron director Ben Harrison, writer and director of Crude. “There is oil in everything in this room. It’s on the walls, on the chairs, in pretty much everything you touch and everything you wear. Oil is everywhere, and if you were an eco-warrior, the extreme end-point of that would be that you wouldn’t be able to go out. You’d just sit in a room naked.”
This is why in capitalist society oil has become such a precious commodity, as well as a political football. This is particular the case in Scotland, where the presence of North Sea oil has provided employment for several generations of workers. As Harrison found out during extensive research that took in interviews with riggers as well as dipping into the 700 hours of archive recordings of oil industry workers held by the University of Aberdeen, it sometimes comes at a very human cost.
“What is central to the play is the fact that the men work two weeks on, two weeks off, and what those work patterns do to families,” Harrison explains. “The oil industry has the highest divorce rate in the UK of any other profession or workforce. It’s funny, because I assumed the divorce came when both partners became further and further disconnected from each other with that working pattern, but the first peak is when they have kids. It’s a great job for a single man, but as soon as you have a family it can be a disaster. The second peak is when the offshore workers give up, try and find something else to do, and are under their partner’s feet the whole time. Neither side can cope with that.”
Beyond such domestic fallout, Crude looks to a broader context for the trickle-down consequences of the oil industry. As Harrison observes, “Scotland’s place in the oil industry is vital, but it was also important that we moved away from Scotland, because while it’s a local story, it’s also a global one.”
To this end, Crude weaves three narrative strands together, which moves between Scotland, the Arctic Circle and the Niger Delta, both key players in oil production in a way that has caused major protests. In the Arctic Circle, it is estimated that some ninety billion barrels of oil remain undiscovered, while Greenpeace have launched the Save the Arctic initiative to highlight the threat the area is under from oil drilling.
Similarly, some two million barrels of oil a day are extracted from the Niger Delta, though much of it is burned or flared, causing local pollution and climate change. The lack of distribution of oil-based wealth has provoked numerous environmental movements and inter-ethnic conflicts, including activity from a guerilla group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
“We go from a very cold place to a very hot place,” says Harrison, “and the Niger Delta in particular is very important to the piece, because the whole coastline has been completely devastated by oil spills.”
In an attempt to knit all this together, Harrison looked to Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s interwoven big-screen rendering of short stories by Raymond Carver.
“All of the characters are connected by one degree of separation,” says Harrison, “and thematically they relate. So there’s an Arctic Circle protestor, and a character in the Niger Delta, who never actually meet in the play, but are linked thematically. The Texas Jim character frames things as this timeless character who has lived since the birth of oil in 1859 in America, though actually oil was discovered by the Greeks two thousand years ago.
“Then there is a deeply unhappy oil worker, who is worried about the downturn that is happening, but finds himself in a position where he has to go and work in the Niger Delta. The economic downturn in the oil industry is a very real thing. Aberdeen largely survived the 2008 recession because of the oil industry, but now finds itself in a place where house prices are crumbling.”
As a show, Crude is very much getting back to Grid Iron’s roots. It isn’t just the one-word title that’s on a par with previous shows such as Gargantua and the Edinburgh Airport-set Roam, plus the presence of Harrison at the helm. The location of Crude in a warehouse owned by the Port of Dundee beside a pair of static rigs is the company’s latest example of aligning performance to an appropriate space.
In an ideal world, Crude would have been performed on an actual oil rig, with the audience being helicoptered out to sea. That plan, first hatched a decade ago, proved financially prohibitive even for a company as imaginative as Grid Iron. Add in the fact that no-one is allowed on a rig without undergoing a form of induction at least a month before, and practical logistics too were against it.
As it is, audiences will still be required to bring their passports in order to enter the show, which takes place in the vast Shed 36, an empty warehouse where refitting work on three oil rigs parked beside it is undertaken.
“It was after we did Roam in Edinburgh Airport,” Harrison remembers, “and we always do an exercise to try and think of what would be more difficult than the place we’ve just done something. Roam was pretty difficult, but we were walking down Princes Street, and I said, ‘What about an oil rig?’ We were never going to get that, but where we’re doing the play now I reckon is the next best thing.”