How do We Talk About Things We Won't Mention?

A PACIFIST’S GUIDE TO THE WAR ON CANCER by Bryony Kimmings, with Brian Lobel; Music by Tom Parkinson National Theatre 4 October, 2016 OIL by Ella Hickson Almeida Theatre 7 October, 2016

How can you take an idea and make it visceral? Is it possible to create a thought which is felt, not just in our minds, but in our bodies, and even our consciousness? Theatre often works to move a piercing idea into a moment which makes us gasp in surprise, or even a gut punch where we lose or bearings, and must find a new way back to our safely. Two ambitious productions had me thinking about this during this week: ‘Oil,’ by Ella Hickson at the Almeida Theatre; and ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ by Bryony Kimmings, a co-production with Complicitie at The National Theatre. Both are new works created by artists at the start of tuning their voices for the stage; both have been workshopped in collaboration with a company who is fostering the work through the process of creation. Most importantly, both ‘Oil’ and ‘A Pacifist’s Guide…’ tackle huge issues and endeavor to talk about them in distinctly theatrical ways, becoming the work of many artists all in discussion with their inspirational material as well as the audience.

In the beginning of ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer,' playwright and director Bryony Kimmings asks in voiceover:

“How do you start a discussion on death and disease?”

To do so, she and the company (along with Brian Lobel, with music by Tom Parkinson), have created a new musical which follows one woman, during one day, on a journey of discovering her baby has bone cancer. This is set against the stories of dozens of cancer patients, and knit together with the input of palliative care workers, epidemiologists, nurses and other health care professionals. The result is a forceful evening of music and theatre which looks at the anger of dealing with the creeping helplessness of disease. I am including a video from The National Theatre, which gives an example of the collaborative, exploratory spirit with which the work was created:

What comes out of this investigation is not so much a narrative structure of a single story, but an evening of impressions on the subject, many of which hit home, emotionally. There are eight clearly marked exits on the stage, but none of them lead out. Instead, they fill with huge inflatable obstacles, which mass and billow, growing and demanding more and more of the physical space of the stage. There is a group of cancer patients talking about the friends they enjoy being around (‘talking like mates’); the friends they can tolerate ( ‘who offer helpful advice on how I should treat my body and what I should put into it’); and the fronds they cannot bear (‘with Aggressive Sorrow’ for their own pain). There are the endless corridors and confusing lines; the rabbit hole of web surfing for answers; the meaningless inspirational memes and ‘likes,’ and a consultation where a diagnosis is explained – and the only intelligible words come out is fits and echoes: ‘Options – statistically – Wednesday.’

While the separate elements of ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ may not always cohere, there is massive and exciting experimentation. Sometime the characters are followed around by member of the cast dressed in jewel toned costumes of organic masses and polyps. Other nods to musical comedy include a dico delusional number for a patient in denial, and a powerful R&B number about indignities inflected on ‘My Poor Body’ during medical examinations (complete with a two-step led by hospital interns wearing disposable bed pans as cowboy hats. The counterpoint and irony create a sort of madness to the evening. This pressure and anxiety is relaxed at the end when the actress at the center of the story speaks directly to Director/Playwright Kimmings, and the audience: ‘So, is it alright to speak as Amanda?’

And begin a quiet, personal conversation about how cancer has touched their lives, naming those whom they have loved affected by it. She invites the rest of the cast to do the same… then asks the audience if there are others they would like to mention, and the names start coming:

‘My nan, Fances.’

‘Douglas’

‘My mother, Louise.’

‘My son, Edward.’

The audience is filled with names, losses, lives….and will be filled with deaths. For this moment, for all the cancer patients mentioned, all of those in the room- and all of the future cancer patients as well - we are together, breathing. In one room, in one moment in time, we are all invited to be together with each other and our own mortality.

Oil,’ by Ella Hickson at The Almeida Theatre, also uses the plastic art of theatre to find a way to talk about an issue that dare not speak its name- this time the reliance on fossil fuel and the history the history of securing it. In Oil, the theatre and all of its workings are in full view: the space is stripped to the bare walls, there is no wing space – actors sit on the side of the playing space, amid prop tables and stage hands. The stage itself is set off by a translucent, glowing polyurethane curtain. The curtain sets off scenes, and also acts as a projection screen for films which rocket the play’s sense of time and space through many locales: a frozen Cornish farmstead in 1889, where a US businessman introduces the starving farm family to kerosene; a diplomatic dinner in 1908 Persia, where Iranian oil is being carved up by British colonialists; London 1970, and a comfortable Hampstead home where a Libyan official appears to politely but firmly demand control of his country’s oil reserves. The play’s second half veers off into future, and a English family leaving a no longer welcoming Middle East; and finally a return to Cornwall, and a freezing lightless winter where reliance upon resources has immobilized a mother and daughter – and the arrival of a Chinese business woman who promises limitless resources, based on helium harvested from the moon. This is a lot to fit into one evening, but the invention and theatricality of Carrie Cracknell’s staging keep the thought all sparkling, if not always cohesive. ‘Oil’ is huge, expansive, work which does not lack for ideas, and all the more power to it for that very reason.

In this sprawling time line, the constant in each of these episodes is May, who starts as an ambitious farmer’s wife, seduced away from tilling the earth by the possibilities of kerosene, and sets out on here destiny through time and space: a servant at the dinner between ambassadors and royalty; then a corporate executive for a British petroleum concern, faced down in her home by a Libyan dignitary. She morphs into a mother trying to remove her daughter from a future Middle East, and finally to a bloated, motionless couch potato, locked into her home and dependent upon resources she no longer controls. May (her very name suggests possibility and self-direction) transport a story of British business and its relationship to oil into a personal journey. It is an electric and theatrical moment when May (in lightless, frigid Cornwall circa 1889), finds herself drawn to a kerosene lamp and, touching it – lights her own fingers on fire. Instead of terror, she reacts with awe and even an almost sexual delight: a new wonder at her fingertips. Watching May seduce a British ambassador, literally getting into bed with politics, in order to secure her future; or shout down domestic squabbles with her daughter while managing an international crisis, may seem a little too allegorical, but the human relationships are fleshed out beautifully by the cast and director (most notably by Anne Marie Duff as May, and Yolanda Kettle as her daughter Amy), and carry the weight of what is on the lie when we mix ambition, desire, fear, and self-preservation. In distilling the drive to consume into a human struggle, it is a powerful moment when, at the end of act one May’s Hampstead home is ripped apart, the floor beneath her feet taken away. She stands in the dirt as her husband from the first scene returns, and asks her:

“What were you so afraid of?’

…renaming Ambition as Fear, and all her voracious consumption as hoarding. When May and Amy are seen in the last moments – bloated, cold, arguing about internet access – it is a fierce, distorted mirror of our present day selves. We are, once again, in the same room as the actors, in the same time and the same place. Both of these plays allows for the evening of theatre to be not a presentation- but a conversation, between artists and audience, and exciting – sometimes frustrating- exchange of ideas.

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