Early on in How to Occupy an Oil Rig, Daniel Bye tells us that this is a show “about demonstration that takes the form of a series of demonstrations”. Within this description is the dialecticism that the show employs: does protest work or doesn’t it?; Should theatre be a place of protest or not? Should political theatre contain emotion or should it be purely a intellectual exercise? Through a number of “How to…” sketches grouped around a central couple, Bye asks questions about all these things and by using play, extraordinarily, it never feels like we’re being lectured.
As we enter the auditorium, we are invited to make a plasticine representation of ourselves and place a personalised placard with an anti-oil slogan on it. All these figurines then end up on a Lego board and act as us on-stage. All of this is, of course, in keeping with the tone of the show, which often resembles an intellectualised children’s TV show, complete with giant Lego bricks (Lucy Crimmens) and a cast dressed in bright colours and dungarees.
The names of two audience members (in the show I saw Rob and Kylie) are chosen to represent a pair of activists whose journey we follow. Bye, ostensibly, doesn’t want them to become romantically involved, but his co-stars Kathryn Beaumont and Jack Bennett – who helped to devise the show – think that an emotional core is necessary. They meet when cleaning birds after an oil spill (the section is entitled “How to clean a bird”) before going on to other things like occupying a petrol station (“How to occupy a shop”) and getting arrested (“How to cope with police interrogation”). Though Bye protests, the insistence of Beaumont and Bennett means Kylie and Rob end up falling in love.
The only reason we don’t protest more, the show suggests, is because we don’t know how to. By thus creating these demonstrations, the idea is that we will have sufficient knowledge to carry out our own protests. But it’s also far more than that. It’s also about the best way of galvanising a populace to your cause, of the hope that seems so bright at the start but can fail when one of your number doesn’t end up being who you thought they were. It’s just as much about the problems with political activism as its virtues.
Early in the show, Bennett suggests that “people don’t want to see a play about bringing down big oil”, but by the end he’s proved wrong. We see that through simple actions like telling stories and offering hope, we can attempt to change things, proving that theatre is as powerful a tool as any for orchestrating protest. Indeed, by the end it feels like the title could be extended. By the end this is How to Make a Play About How to Occupy an Oil Rig.
How to Occupy an Oil Rig is at Northern Stage, St Stephens until 24 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.