The Black Swan State Theatre Company presents a play of major significance this season. Oil, written by award-winning UK playwright Ella Hickson, traverses the history of oil, from the late 1800s to its current state, to an imagined dystopian future – all the while questioning our own part in this mega-empire.
Antonino Tati chats with actor Will O’Mahony, who plays two roles in the play: Samuel, a farmer, and Samuel, a naval officer – both fairly antagonistic characters in an ambitious story about the rise, dangers and possible drying up of nature’s ‘black gold’.
Hi Will. The new play you are in, ‘Oil’, is timely what with talk of limited resources currently on the political landscape and with fuel prices skyrocketing. What aspects of this play have you learned from?
There is so much to admire about this play. Foremost is the sheer size of the canvas that [writer] Ella Hickson is playing with. A lot of plays get tagged as ‘ambitious’ but in the case of Oil it is well earned. During rehearsal, the cast have often joked that it is five plays in one. We move through time and space in a way that few plays attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also fascinating the way Hickson is able to weave a history lesson through the dialogue and images.
I assume the issue of eventual resource depletion comes up in the play?
Yes. From the discovery of oil to its exploitation and politicisation, all the way through to an imagined future where it has inevitably become obsolete, the play charts the rise, peak and fall of an empire. Its ideas are huge and yet it never for a moment loses the human struggle of a mother and daughter caught in the black gold’s geopolitical grip.
Tell us a bit about your character or characters in this play. I understand there is a cast of 10 but 17 characters portrayed throughout…
I play two characters. The first is an alcoholic, abusive Cornish farmer in the late 1800s. Impoverished and freezing, Samuel terrorises the women in the homestead and acts as the main antagonist in scene one. The second role is Officer Samuel, a womanising British naval officer who has been stationed in Tehran at the turn of the century. He has been tasked with sweet-talking Persian officials so as to claim and siphon off the vast oil reserves in the region. He is very much an echo of the Samuel we meet in the first scene.
You play two bad guys!
Yes, and to be honest, it’s quite fun going on stage knowing that the audience is going to hate your character.
Since graduating from WAAPA you have worked with every major theatre company in Perth. What is it about theatre that you love so much?
Well, firstly, the challenge. It’s not an easy thing to hold an audience’s attention, and everyone needs to work as a team for it to work. Secondly, it can just be so alive. The pressure on the actors to deliver is exciting and, when they do it, can be truly remarkable. Finally, the language.
“The theatre is a space that celebrates text and dialogue in a way that the screen doesn’t. There is something rhythmic and intoxicating and utterly compelling about a great playwright’s text coursing through a company of actors.”
Your CV is pretty impressive, having acted in ‘Assassins’, ‘Angels in America’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Twelfth Night’, and ‘The Dark Room’. Is there a play you would say no to acting in – be it for personal or political reasons?
Well, there are interesting and complex conversations happening about representation and who should be able to play what role. That in itself is an interesting conversation for actors, given their ability to richly imagine and then play and live the circumstances of another. Personally, I don’t necessarily believe that you must have directly experienced something in order to do the playing of it justice. At the same time, I’m more sensitive than ever when auditioning for roles that might wildly depart from my lived experience. Ultimately, the only time that I would flat out reject a role would be if I felt my playing of it would be demeaning, either to the actors, the characters being depicted, or the audience.
You are also a playwright and director; do you feel writing and directing plays has helped better your acting skills and vice versa, or are they strictly different working roles for you and never the twain shall meet?
I think all the disciplines complement each other and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work in all three roles. Playwrighting is perhaps the most creative of the three, and directing the most interpretive. They of course all call for different skills but essentially share a fascination for the limits of what it is to be human – its glory, its horror, its anguish and its absurdity. As someone who has been foolish – and egotistical – enough to attempt all three on the one project, it is a real privilege to be working on Oil strictly as an actor. The chance to fully immerse in the rich imaginative world of the play is a real joy, particularly when you have such great people around to let you know what is working and what isn’t.
Do you think the pandemic has put a spanner in the works for theatre, or has theatre become more enriched in spite of, and despite, Covid?
Theatre and the arts always seem to take on added significance during times of hardship. It’s in moments of crisis that we most need artists to remind us of what we value – what stories we need told – so we can better endure and unite as a community. Certainly, Covid has presented its problems and many shows have sadly been lost to the pandemic, but those shows that do go ahead seem to hold great weight and resonance. It’s encouraging and humbling to see audiences flock to live performances despite all the obstacles of the past three years.
Finally, Will, could you describe your career in three words?
Fruity, lurching, tragi-comic.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents ‘Oil’ at the Heath Ledger Theatre from November 5-27, 2022. Tickets are available through blackswantheatre.com.au.