Oil City: campaigning theatre

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

June 19, 2013
4 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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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.

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.