It’s Sunday night and I find myself shivering in a car park waiting with a hundred other theatre-goers for a bus to the docks. A five minute drive takes us past the colossal vessels moored on the Tay, through a security gate into an industrial graveyard, finally to be deposited in front of Shed 36. If this is theatre, where are the soft chairs and ice cream?
Edinburgh-based Grid Iron Theatre Company have been producing site-specific theatre for over 20 years, staging original material in unusual venues all over the world. Their agenda is overtly political and their latest offering, Crude, produced in conjunction with Dundee Rep, tackles a subject close to home – the oil industry.
The shutter goes up on Shed 36 revealing a vast black space and at the far end the set – a large stylised oil rig – already swarming with riggers in high-viz jackets, climbing the frame or dangling from the ceiling.
Crude aims to tell the truth about the oil industry, and it’s nearly all bad. Exploitation is the name of the game: exploitation of native people on whose land the oil is found, exploitation of the environment, exploitation of the workers who risk their lives to harvest it. The uncomfortable truth is that we support that exploitation by our dependence on oil for everything from transportation to synthetic cloth to mobile phones to cosmetics. We destroy other people’s lives to maintain our own.
Intersecting narratives leap between the personal and political. From Aberdeen to Texas, via Africa and Asia. We meet the veteran rigger who should have retired from the rigs a decade ago but has become dependent on the income it provides and the oil executive whose job it is to hush up safety breeches. The eco-activist left to rot in a Kazakhstan jail; the father driven to desperate measures to protect his family from water poisoned by oil drilling in the Niger Delta; the narrator is a Stetson-wearing Texas oil man, always there to remind us that our dependence on oil makes us all complicit in this black, black business.
The staging reflects this. The set is black, the props are black, even the drinks in the bar are black. The corporate morality is black, but it is also a seductive business. When the narrator describes the feeling of first striking oil, the resultant ‘oilgasm’ is represented by an oil-soaked mermaid in black rubber, dripping with crude while writhing in mid-air. The image is simultaneously grotesque and sexy.
It’s an ambitious production and for the most part succeeds. The venue, which roots the play in the real world also fights the performance – giant metal sheds are not acoustically suited for lyrically complex songs. And boy, were those free blankets necessary. But these are niggles—the script and the production design skewer the corruption and double dealing that sustains an industry which props up so many economies (including our own).
The script is full of terrible facts: offshore workers in the North Sea are not protected by a union; offshore workers refer to the accident-prone EC225 Super Puma helicopter as the ‘Flying C**tmobile’; Occidental Petroleum didn’t pay a penny of compensation for the Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 people. The human cost of all this is overlooked because we are so addicted to the end product. Unfortunately change seems unlikely; as the play points out, the oil companies are now fighting over the next big cash cow – drilling rights in the Arctic.
Grid Iron’s skill is to make the intellectual messages tangible by placing them in the real world. It challenges you to actually DO something and without doubt Crude deserves a wider audience. Throughout the play a huge projected clock has been counting the amount oil produced worldwide during the two hours we’ve been in the shed: 2.5 million barrels. We get back on our diesel coach, drive away from the rust and the steel and the sea, and head home to our warm houses and soft chairs.
‘Crude – An Exploration Of Oil’ runs from 11 – 23 October 2016. Tickets available from: http://www.dundeerep.co.uk/event/crude-an-exploration-of-oil or http://www.gridiron.org.uk/