Oil City: campaigning theatre

Siobhan McGuirk experiences Oil City, an immersive, site-specific play produced by campaign group Platform
June 2013

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.

Meeting the Lawyer

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.

Picking targets

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.

Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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Mel Evans 26 June 2013, 21.11

Hi – I’m the writer referred to in the article above, and I wanted to respond to one of your points. Not to be ungracious, but because it seemed like an important point to pick up on politically.

Siobhan you said:
“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.”

I wanted to flag up for readers that one of the two main characters was a First Nations Activist from Canada. This was a very clear choice not to represent the issues around the tar sands via a white, middle class activist from the UK, but to try to situate the activist perspective in the story by the activists leading that struggle in the real world.

It seemed really important to me not to replicate what Occupy failed on in my opinion, which was to blur everyone into ‘the 99%’, irrespective of massive differences in experience around racism and sexism, for a start. Occupy was also strongly criticised for using the language and symbolism of occupation uncritically in states which have colonial histories or are themselves settler colonies.

So there absolutely was an activist in Oil City – but not the ‘rank and file’, white middle class activist usually ready and willing to take credit for a campaign win, but a First Nations activist’s perspective, to point towards where this struggle is really based, and where to look for leadership.

I hope this comment is useful to you and other readers.

Siobhan McGuirk 27 June 2013, 12.43

Hi Mel,

As a reviewer, all I can attest to is my own personal experience, and I stand by all of the above. I wholly respect your stated intentions, but the fact remains that, one the day, I interacted with a number of anti-oil characters. For me, there was a single obvious “lead” in the journalist who briefed and debriefed us. The secondary characters seemed to be, in order of apparent emphasis: the journalist, the First Nations activist, the BP whistleblower, the Nigerian anonymous source and the UK government worker. Yes, there was an activist. Was she given equal emphasis as the others combined? No way. Perhaps the actress was simply not as assertive as required, or went off script at the performance I attended? I do not know.

In any case, I felt the concluding message was: We need lawyers and journalists, and business insiders very much onside in this murky, profit-driven world. That is fine as a message. Indeed, I felt it was the point of the play. As a viewer, I cannot assess your intentions but rather what ends up being staged.

I think you misread, and certainly misrepresent, my meaning of “rank and file” here. My comment is a product of knowing that Tar Sands activism has very much involved “traditional” protest marches, manifestations, blockades, First Nations speaker tours, documentary and photography campaigns, and locally applied political pressure alongside media and legal. All of these have involved non-white, non-middle-class activists, the unacknowledged rank and file (for the real rank and file are precisely those unable to take credit) of numerous movements, not least in Alberta itself. I made the point about emphasis because I felt that sort of activism broadly (not only of the Climate Camp ilk) was being played down.

Finally, I mentioned Occupy because the play is billed in your own press releases as appropriate for “the post-Occupy era”. For me, that was a prompt to analysis. Occupy is not referenced at all in the play, however. In fact, Oil City could have been staged pre-Occupy. Rather than perhaps suggest a cynical marketing strategy on your part, I simply sought to link the two through their focus on the financial heart of the city. I’m certainly not celebrating Occupy, and your critiques are valid. They are not, however, evident in Oil City.

I enjoyed the play and have a lot of admiration of the work Platform does. This is a review, however, not an interview with the production team. You of course have the right to reply, and talk about your intentions. If my experience was not what you wanted viewers to experience in terms of characters import, or overall message, I hope that my feedback as a viewer can be helpful for if/when you stage the play again in the future.



emma 30 June 2013, 10.40

Interesting to have the issue of power within Oil City so vigorously debated. As another viewer I’m chipping in my thoughts – I agree that the majority of the characters we meet are the journalists / lawyers/ corporate employees but for me the most powerful performance (and the moment when the whole play turns) was from the woman playing the Nigerian cleaner. While the lawyer and journalist spend most of their time confused and unsure it is the character of the cleaner who not only gets ‘the evidence’ but is also able to explain the audience what has happened. We do then have to rely on the journalist and lawyer to ‘get the information out’ (it would be unrealistic to suggest otherwise) but the play locates power outside of the suited and booted characters we meet at the start.

Occupy is not present in the play and relating it directly to Occupy as a way of opening up ideas about the movement– especially given the setting – could have been fascinating but given this was already a fairly complicated hour long performance it would have necessitated the piece having a different focus.
I hope the piece gets staged again so the debate can continue!

Comments are now closed on this article.

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