Stephen McGinty for The Sunday Times
‘We’re all complicit in turning the Niger Delta into a hell on earth’
Grid Iron’s new play about crude — to be performed in the Port of Dundee — is the company’s most ambitious yet, covering the environmental destruction caused by the west’s reliance on oil , amid the North Sea downturn.
Back in the early days of the Texas oilfields, the owner of a prominent oil company was visited by a group of Pentecostal ministers. These men of the cloth were deeply concerned that the extraction of so many barrels of oil might soon extinguish the fires of hell. While the owner’s reply was not recorded, he was sure to have reassured these troubled preachers that Satan’s supply of brimstone was untarnished and that there was more than enough flames to provide the world’s sinners with their just reward.
Over the centuries, man’s understanding of the origins of oil have included the notion that the earth was an animal, with water its blood, rock its bones and oil a form of blubber, while an even more obscure belief was that oil was the urine of whales carried from the North Pole via a labyrinth of subterranean channels. Yet one notion remains relatively constant: that oil companies are entwined in a deal with the Devil.
Crude, a new play which opens next week at Shed 36, a construction yard in the Port of Dundee, does not exactly challenge this perception, as it points out the public’s blind complicity as they fill up their cars, turn on their radiators and embrace the myriad products impossible without the advent of hydrocarbons.
Upon arrival at the site, the audience will pass three oil rigs parked in the port, physical evidence of the longest continuous downturn in North Sea oil production, which has resulted in the loss of 65,000 jobs last year alone.
Yet Crude is also a tribute to the brave men and women who toil beyond the horizon to keep us bright and warm, as well as being an indictment of oil company practices that have turned the Niger Delta into what writer and director Ben Harrison describes as “a hell on Earth”.
“We are addicted to fossil fuels and hydrocarbons,” said Harrison, taking a short break from the technical rehearsals at Shed 36. “One guy I interviewed said, ‘Look around this room, what we pull out of the North Sea is not just what you put in your car, it’s your chair, it’s the light bulb, it’s the table.’ The more I looked into it, the more surprised I was: I wear contact lenses, which are a plastic and ultimately derived from crude. I am, literally, seeing the world through oil.
“We want the play to be more nuanced than just pointing the finger, because we are all complicit. We are all consuming these products and if we didn’t, modern life would be very different.”
Grid Iron theatre company, like the Pentecostal ministers of Texas, does not believe in an easy life. Its productions are site specific and exceedingly challenging. “Roam”, a previous work, was the first theatre production in the world to be staged airside at a major airport and involved persuading the Department for Transport to change British law for three weeks to allow audience access. When Ben Harrison was looking for the company’s next project, the image of an oil platform appeared in his mind as he strolled down Edinburgh’s Princes Street: could they stage a play on a North Sea platform?
The £9,000 cost of hiring a helicopter to fly 12 audience members out, not to mention the prospect of each one having to endure safety training, including a simulated dunking, persuaded the company to shift focus, but just a little.
“When we found out about the helicopter dunking in a swimming pool, we thought it might be a step too far for our most loyal audience member. So for the last couple of years, I’ve been researching offshore workers, interviewing them and accessing the University of Aberdeen oral oil archive, which is fantastic, and at the same time looking for a suitable site — and three rigs have come to us. The fact that we are in the longest continuous downturn in the North Sea made it very appropriate to do it now.”
In his interviews with oil workers, Harrison was made aware of the toll that the two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off shift pattern takes on family life and how the downturn has led some men to take jobs in more dangerous parts of the world.
“Linking back to the downturn, there is a lot of pressure to look elsewhere for work and there were countries that in the past they wouldn’t have considered. One guy said to me he looked at his contract and it said ‘offshore transport not secure’, and he asked the head of HR what this meant and she told him, ‘That means you could be shot out of the air.’ He didn’t take it, but other people have to take these jobs.”
The play features an oil worker on a North Sea platform struggling to connect to his daughter over Skype, activists in the Arctic protesting against drilling and the environmental disaster playing out in the Niger Delta.
“We go to the Niger Delta, where the oil pipeline and rigs are destroying the environment and have been for many years,” said Harrison. If the coast of Aberdeenshire looked like that there would be no oil and gas industry, it wouldn’t be allowed, but because it is far away and is not in a western country it goes on. There the acid rain is eating through people’s homes.”
It is an ambitious play that, like its subject, spans the entire world. There are a series of striking images: a couple asleep are awakened by a figure coated in crude, erupting through the bed, hoisted on chains.
Other theatrical flourishes include a nightmare of polar ice caps turning black and a couple making love in an oil slick. Yet at its beating heart are the men marooned on these industrial islands in the North Sea, providing us with the fabric of modern life.
Yet Crude poses more questions than answers and Harrison admits there are no quick solutions. “The problem is not just the companies, but the end consumer, which is all of us. I do think we need to make more investment in renewables, we don’t have a problem with wind, we aren’t going to run out, but I agree there are no easy answers. We do a have a lot of questions. Can we live more simply?”