When Clare Duffy set out to write the play that ended up becoming Arctic Oil, she thought it was going to be a big piece with eight or nine people onstage. She also thought she’d be exploring inter-personal politics against a back-drop of global warming and the protests that erupted in response to the first oil rig being built in the Arctic. Things came to a head when a Greenpeace ship was seized and a group of protestors who came to be known as the Arctic 30 were detained in Russia.
Given Duffy’s background in socially aware theatre that incorporated scientific ideas, such real-life material was a gift, and Arctic Oil could set up its dramatic line of inquiry on a grand scale. At least, that was the plan. Then Duffy had a baby, and everything changed.
“I thought it was going to be this big epic,” she says of her original ideas behind the play. “I was making a site-specific piece on Shetland when the Arctic 30 incident happened, and I wanted to explore international politics against the backdrop of global warming. That was the plan, but plans change.”
The result in the Traverse Theatre’s production of Arctic Oil, which opens in Edinburgh next week, is a much more intimate affair, as a female activist and her mother square up to their respective ideals in an attempt to both warn and look after each other.”
“What I’ve ended up with is a play about a mother and daughter who really love each other, but who have completely different views of the world,” says Duffy.
Arctic Oil was written during Duffy’s tenure as the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities 2015 creative fellow, an initiative run in conjunction with the Traverse. The brief for whoever was appointed was to write something about conflict. Again, while that remains the case with Arctic Oil in the word’s broadest sense, the end result became something much closer to home. This came from Duffy spending time with the Family Activist Network (FAN), a UK-wide network of adults and children tackling climate change in various forms of art activism, but always through the prism of an extended family.
“That feels really resonant just now,” says Duffy, “because with small children, just getting everybody safely through the day feels like quite an achievement. At a domestic level, you have to decide things like whether to recycle nappies or to buy new ones, so the politics of the environment are already quite sticky. Then FAN wanted to demonstrate at the climate change conference in Paris, and the bombing happened. My little boy was two, and I didn’t feel safe taking him there.
“I’m only observing activism as an author rather than participating, but it can be hugely wearing emotionally and psychologically for those taking part, and it’s fascinating that people can throw themselves at something so whole-heartedly both literally and metaphorically.”
Arctic Oil is Duffy’s most high-profile work in Scotland to date since her play, Clean, appeared in Edinburgh in 2000. That was with Unlimited Theatre, the company she set up in 1997 with graduates of Leeds University. The following year, also with Unlimited, Duffy co-devised and performed in Neutrino alongside Chris Goode and Chris Thorpe. In 2003 Dufy received the Pearson Award for Crossings, which toured to Edinburgh, where she was now living, two years later.
Since then, Duffy has continued to work with Unlimited on works such as The Moon The Moon and Mission to Mars, while also developing collaborations between Cumbernauld Theatre and the Commedia Theatre, Bucharest, and site-responsive projects in Glasgow and Cardiff. In 2012 Duffy wrote ANA, a collaboration between Scotland’s Stellar Quines company and the Quebec-based Imago Theatre. She has also penned live Christmas shows for Cbeebies in large-scale venues throughout the UK, as well as TV broadcasts of The Snow Queen and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The relationship continues this year with Duffy’s version of Thumbelina.
In 2011, Duffy was a recipient of the Arches Platform 18: New Directions Award for Money The Game Show, an interactive look at the financial crisis four years before using a game show format. This was later toured by Unlimited, and Duffy created a version for young people.
Out of this, Duffy has started another company, Civic Digits, which fuses digital technology and games to create new work. Since 2017, Duffy has been an associate artist at Perth Theatre, and is developing a major project called The Big Data Show. Co-produced by Civic Digits, Unlimited and Perth Theatre in partnership with Edinburgh International Festival and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, The Big Data Show uses digital games and theatre to look at issues around cyber security, and looks set to tour schools this autumn.
If such a fusion of forms looks expansively futuristic next to Arctic Oil, this new work nevertheless looks at big ideas in close-up. Despite the play’s backdrop of global warming and environmental activism, Duffy is in no way interested in tub-thumping from her political soapbox.
“I don’t know that I want anybody going away with any kind of message,” she says. “I would be really proud if it makes people think in some way, and the different things that different people take away from something are really fascinating. I was really surprised and delighted as well when we did a reading of the play, and watching it really reminded me of me and my own mum.”
Duffy doesn’t, however, see herself as any kind of self-righteous warrior standing up to the follies of an older generation. Rather, as Arctic Oil makes clear, it’s about the personal becoming political in a much more human way.
“I’m definitely not a rebel,” she says. “In some ways I wish I was, but me and my mum always really enjoy arguing about politics and philosophy. It helps strengthen our arguments for the rest of the world.”
Arctic Oil, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 9-20.
The Herald, October 4th 2018