At a time when natural disasters headline the news every other day, Lab Kelpie’s Oil Babies taps into modern anxieties about a seemingly inevitable apocalypse, and the apparent futility of individual attempts to ‘save the planet’. Written and directed by Petra Kalive, the play depicts a dystopia not at all far away from our own world. Apocalypse is imminent, with the human race on the precipice of extinction. Three anonymous women (Kali Hulme, Jodie Le Vesconte and Fiona Macleod) deal with the anxiety and absurdity that arises from modern life on the brink of collapse, echoing the natural but seemingly futile concerns familiar to many of us: I recycle, ride to work, bring my own bags to the supermarket – what more can I do to save the world? In particular, two characters grapple to justify the decision to bring a child into a world which may end at any moment; a destruction to which any child will inevitably contribute.
Moved to a setting in which apocalypse is imminent, the concerns and preoccupations of the characters feel as absurd as they do sympathetic. As they participate in spin classes, the women blur chatter of environmental disaster with their preferences in organic flour; the very real possibility of total apocalypse is conflated with concerns about microplastics and methane. The characters try their best to improve and justify their environmental efforts, cycling hard all the while. Notably, however, they are literally going nowhere.
Such thought-provoking parallels are the strength of Kalive’s writing. The anxieties of creating life in a dying world are well portrayed, as is the parallel drawn between the traumas of pregnancy and apocalypse. The female body becomes the small-scale manifestation of the earth’s damage, littered with the same apprehensions, trials and compulsion to ‘fix’. The prospect of childbirth looms on the horizon, implicitly equated with the impending apocalypse. Oil Babies similarly questions how close disaster – both natural and personal – needs to get before we become accountable for our actions. The characters’ panic regarding both motherhood and the environment subsides into ‘trauma fatigue’ just as the trauma actually reaches their doorstep. The question of ‘what else can we do?’ rings true and simultaneously empty, highlighting the irrationality of our nonetheless natural responses to overwhelming disaster.
The strengths of the creative team shine through in the reflection of these dichotomies. Andrew Bailey’s set design and Lisa Mibus’s lighting work seamlessly together to create an adaptable landscape, which is both apocalyptic and sterile. The garbage bag like tarp covering the stage cleverly catches the light to evoke oil, trash and magma at different times. Darius Kedros’s sound design is also used to great effect, with a soundscape that is somehow simultaneously grating and bearable, an ingenious reflection of the onstage tension.
Nonetheless, Oil Babies struggles to go beyond the mere reflection of these modern fears. The parallels, whilst interesting, are left somewhat unexplored, and I found myself wishing the play would grapple directly with the implications of its themes, rather than just reflecting our anxieties back onto us. Despite an all female cast with constant allusions to motherhood, pregnancy and childbirth, the script stopped shy of really engaging with the implied parallels between the violence of apocalypse and the violence of pregnancy; between the ravaged earth and the body of the anxious mother. The particular pressure the characters felt as women at the end of the world was suggested, but underdeveloped. The overwhelming recounting of facts entwined with Hulme’s cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘Something’s burning’ were successful in replicating claustrophobic feeling in the audience, but ultimately stood in the way of cognisant exploration of the feeling itself. Similarly, movement sequences felt abrupt and overly abstract, too vague and removed from the play’s substance to really engage with its issues.
What undoubtedly makes writing about environmental collapse so difficult is that we all have so many questions, excuses and justifications, with few (if any) answers. Asking any play to neatly summarise and psychologise the predicament is a herculean task. While I do think Oil Babies would have benefited from delving deeper into its themes, it ultimately raises important issues, reflecting the frustration and difficulties we face in taking accountability for the world we create.
Lab Kelpie’s production of Oil Babies runs from the 8th-18th of August at Northcote Town Hall.
Image credit: Lachlan Woods