Perhaps one should begin with what this production is not: It is not an homage to bygone gold rush times, not a raised “look where greed has led us” forefinger. It is, and that is probably the most remarkable, not a climate crisis staging either.
How easy it would have been for director Jan-Christoph Gockel, from the novel “Oil!” by the American author Upton Sinclair, published in 1927, to stage a piece at the Schauspiel Frankfurt that everything was so obvious: oil production has always been an exploitation of the present at the expense of the future. With oil, not only finally began industrialization, but also the misery in which we are today. Even if we never actually see the greasy black stuff, it’s everywhere in plastics, clothing, cosmetics. There is no way we will get rid of the internal combustion engine before 2030. Until then, SUVs will be driven happily. Endless material for malice, anger, defiance and criticism.
Jan-Christoph Gockel knows all of this, of course, but he does not allow himself to be seduced into making a moralizing comment on the climate crisis. Which is pretty cool at first. After all, the topic is rightly omnipresent and is rightly part of many repertoire of the theater season that is just beginning. There is no second opinion on the climate crisis, Gockel seems to want to say by simply explaining what is. He shows the oil era from the beginning as a ramshackle, a bygone one, which at most still clings to the glamor of old times. For example, by giving the production the look of an old film premiere. A red carpet has already been rolled out in front of the door of the Schauspiel Frankfurt. That is doubly appropriate, after all, you start a new season full of hope that evening, and that in a fully occupied house.
Where there is oil, there is also money, power, resistance and the attempt to overcome it
The film shown is then also called “Oil!” and is a production by J. Arnold Ross, self-proclaimed “oil man”, later oil magnate and one of the protagonists of the novel or film, Gockel does not divide that exactly. The story accompanies him and his shaky son Bunny (Torsten Flassig) in the early decades of the 20th century through the USA in search of oil. They buy land from the poor Watkins family because they rightly suspect oil in the ground under their ranch. This is followed by drilling, drilling accidents, quarrels with the socialist unionized Watkins children Ruth (Lotte Schubert) and Paul (André Meyer), because where there is oil, there is money, there is also power, there is also resistance and the attempt to do so to overcome. The figure of the third Watkins child, Eli (Andreas Vögler), a religious fanatic, the author and director try to legitimize the exploitation of the earth somehow as divine will: “If, according to God’s wise advice, this drilling site produces riches, let them be in service of the Most High. ” Bunny is torn between the greed of his father Ross (played funny for shooting by Wolfram Koch as a leather coat-swinging cowboy) and burgeoning questions about social justice and mistakes in the principle of capitalism. He gets on when his father is also a film producer in Hollywood and lets an actress (Caroline Dietrich) wrap him up. But he stands for a generation that no longer want to adopt the methods of the ancients without reflection. But in the end he will not be able to hold his own against his father.
Director Gockel is not particularly interested in characters, his characters are much too woodcut-like for that, all the more for alleged causal relationships and how humans manage to create them and, see above, to legitimize them. Gockel shows the seemingly inextricable entanglement of people with the raw material oil and the eternal tension with nature, which people face in their hubris: “Nature was beautiful and good, but it should remain to the left and right of this line,” says Bunny as he drives through the country in his car. Hollywood, where later parts of the story take place, is only a brief metaphor for glamor, for example when Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is conjured up, then only as a symbol for non-sustainable concepts.
The director and his set designer do not skimp on the effect. The game is played around a large puddle of oil into which someone falls from time to time
Gockel’s productions always show great joy in theater magic, as most recently in “Eine Jugend in Deutschland”, an exuberantly imaginative adaptation of the novel by Ernst Toller, with which he opened the last season at the Münchner Kammerspiele. Probably because of this enthusiasm, he always goes on too much rather than too little. This time, too, he and the set designer Julia Kurzweg did not skimp on effects. You push a vintage car and a few letters of the Hollywood symbol onto the stage, chase the players through the house with the camera and almost into a tram passing in front of the theater, of course the game is played around a large black puddle of oil into which someone falls from time to time.
What is real and what the film is in the game is not always clear, Gockel cheerfully stacks image and reference levels. That doesn’t really bother, there is enough to get involved with. “We are the spectators of what we are doing right now,” says Bunny. “We’re shooting the film, editing and premiering at the same time.” That fits the idea of the staging and maybe also the state of the world quite well, only that you could add “the morning after the premiere party” as an experience level. In the end, high-rise towers in Frankfurt are blown up using a video clip (quote Ross: “Everything has to go”), the floor in front of the theater broken up, and lo and behold, oil gushes out from there too. If Gockel allows himself a comment, then it is: “We are right in the middle, we know the end and still continue.”