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Big banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, invested heavily in BP’s tar sands oil extraction project in Alberta, Canada. The European Union will likely prevent import of the oil, after the European commission found the extraction process to be “highly polluting”. The UK government, having bailed out the bank, is however keen to see a return on their investment. So too are RBS and BP stockholders. Meanwhile, in Canada’s courts BP is struggling to prove its activities do not contravene the First Nations Treaty, and to refute the Cree people’s claims it knowingly poisoned the land.
Environmental activists, lawyers and journalists are keeping a close eye on dealings between RBS, BP, and the UK government. They have reason to suspect illegal activities are taking place, as stakeholders seek to expand tar sands oil sales to the EU and to defend BP in court. The activists need hard evidence to support their suspicions and have appealed to the public for support…
This is the real world premise of Oil City, an immersive, site-specific play produced by campaign group Platform. The complexity of the scenario, coupled with the perhaps turgid prospect of a stage-play based on secret meetings, memos, case files and jargon, has prompted writer Mel Evans to craft an unusual and unexpectedly exciting solution: audience members, or more appropriately participants, must head into the city looking for proof that RBS, BP and the UK government are breaking the law.
At the performance I attended, four of us met ‘The Lawyer’ at Toynbee Studios in Aldgate. We were quickly handed suit jackets and driven to the heart of the financial sector. Following the cues of three actors, who blended into the surroundings better than any of us, we eavesdropped an off the record meeting between ‘The RBS Employee’ and ‘The BP Representative’. We intercepted ‘The Government Official’ as he attempted to smoke out ‘The Whistleblower’. We listened to ‘The Activist’ as she detailed laws broken and political pressures applied to ensure profits flowed long after the oil. Building a paper trail between cement, steel and glass, we finally exposed the dodgy dealings of RBS and BP. As ‘The Journalist’ broke the news, we patted ourselves on the back.
Oil City works because of the experience it provides. We were forced to weave through throngs of suited men and women spilling out of Liverpool Street station and striding into surrounding offices, briefcases in hand. We sat with them in cafes and watched them in courtyards, tucking into breakfast or eating their sandwiches on benches outside. With the cast blending seamlessly into the surroundings it seemed obvious that legally questionable and morally reprehensible decisions can be made quickly, over coffee, during another day at the office. The banality of the city, impossible to capture on stage, is quite terrifying up close.
This subtle message of the play manifests as a creeping realisation: oil is big business, and this is a thoroughly business-oriented world. The people involved number in the thousands, work nine-to-five, and are for the most part simply sandwich-eating cogs in an enormous, profit-driven machine. Thoughtfully timed to coincide with the G8 summit, the play implies heads of state are the wrong targets for anyone aiming to stem the social and environmental distress caused by big oil.
Oil City is a powerful and creative work. It also has notable faults. The Occupy movement, cited in press materials for the play, was apparently right to focus on the financial, rather than political heart of London. Yet the play emphasizes researchers, lawyers, whistleblowers and investigative journalists, rather than rank and file protesters, as the vital players in opposing dirty oil deals and digs.
The initial briefing could have been more carefully constructed – as it was, we were still trying to understand our own roles when the attention-demanding narrative kicked in. And the positivism of the ending also felt out of place, not least as we returned to a pile of real newspaper articles revealing far more depressing truths. One pitfall of interactive theatre is that participants are likely to ask questions – in this campaigning context, the lead should have been better prepared to answer them. These slight quibbles did not detract, however, from the thrilling, informative and thought-provoking experience Oil City provides. Hopefully, further performances will allow more people to take part.
Oil City runs until 21 June – more information.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun