What makes for a good life? And how much do we really need to live? These are the questions asked by Sydney Theatre Company’s newest production, Oil, as it traces the powerful rise of the world’s most prominent energy resource (and its foreshadowed fall).

“It’s unique in the way that it spans 160 years from when oil first comes en masse to the UK in the late 1800s to where it hypothetically runs out in the future – which [in] our future is 2051,” says director Paige Rattray.

Written by British playwright Ella Hickson in 2016, Oil covers globally prevalent themes around natural resources, global warming, ownership, war and capitalism. “I remember the pang of absolute fear [I felt] the first time I read it,” says Rattray. “It is a warning.”

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The play begins with a pregnant May (played by Brooke Satchwell) in Cornwall in 1889, as oil first becomes a resource. It then takes the audience to 1908, where the British Empire is taking on the Middle East, before fast-forwarding to the 1970s, where May is a CEO at an oil company and finds herself frequently clashing with her daughter, Amy. Part four transports the audience to 2021 (which Hickson wrote as the future) where Amy (Charlotte Friels) is an aid worker in Iraq. The play concludes in 2051.

“There's a magic quality to this play that really holds you… and I think that’s the time travel quality within it. At times it feels like the past, present and future all exists at once,” says Rattray “But at the heart and centre of that is a mother-daughter relationship between May and Amy.”

The production centres around the paradox that you can’t be both a feminist and a capitalist: feminism is about freedom and, on the contrary, capitalism oppresses women. “Do you have to give up love to be free as a woman? Or can you have both?” asks Rattray. “The piece doesn’t necessarily answer that, but it questions it vigorously.”

Rattray says the arc of the play is formed by this idea, alongside an apocryphal Saudi saying that’s also printed in the preface of the script: “My father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flies a jet plane, his son will ride a camel.” The play seeks to ask the question: at what point will our depletion of resources and growing levels of greed, affect what each generation is able to give to the next?

Presented at The Wharf in-the-round, the audience is seated around the stage, allowing for 360-degree views of the action. “When you're in-the-round, [the cast] are not playing out to an audience, they're playing into each other, so the relationships become deep really quickly,” Rattray says.

Ultimately, Rattray hopes audiences walk away with more appreciation for our natural resources and what we often take for granted, such as energy, light, warmth and food. “For us, it's about how we can be the most clear with this information so people can take that away with them and have a really rigorous conversation,” she says. “It changes the way you think about the world and when I go to the theatre, that’s what I want. I want to walk out thinking differently to when I went in.”

Oil is showing at The Wharf 1 Theatre from Saturday November 4 to Saturday December 16, 2023. See more information and buy tickets.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company.