Anne-Marie Duff is seeing oil everywhere. Gesturing around a rehearsal room at the Almeida theatre in north London, where she’s starring in a new play, she points out how every plastic pot in which we buy fruit, every disposable coffee cup out of which we drink and even the laminated surfaces of the table in front of us were made using oil. And we’re running out.
“It’s completely terrifying but once you lift that rock… I’ve become hyper-aware of every piece of plastic – how many things are made of oil,” she says.
That rock’s been lifted by working with the playwright Ella Hickson and director Carrie Cracknell, alongside various experts in rehearsals, on Hickson’s new play Oil, a wide-angled look at our dependency on the black stuff.
“The first thing I realised is how clueless I am – you like to think you’re informed, but you’re just not,” says Duff with bracing honesty. “So many of the world’s problems, so many wars, are down to this slick substance that controls all our lives. It’s so insulting for me to have not made that connection, as a privileged Westerner.”
Not that it is a desperately worthy “issue play” or a sermon about global warming. It may be called simply Oil, but this hugely ambitious, imaginative work – and Duff’s part in it – are anything but simple.
The 46-year-old actress plays May, a ferociously devoted mother, who smells opportunity at the discovery of oil; we continue to see her interactions with the industry at various points in history – and in the future. Oil time-travels in both directions, beginning in a farmhouse in Cornwall in 1889, scooting forward to colonial Persia in 1908, Hampstead in 1970, Libya in 2020, and finally back to Cornwall, when the oil’s running out, in 2050. But the play is as much about May’s loving, fraught relationship with her daughter as it is about geo-politics.
Duff sums it up succinctly: “it’s a play about co-dependency: in relationships, and between nations.” Meanwhile, that era-hopping chronology is “totally bonkers – and great fun”. This magical realist approach to time means May is a rare beast of a role: not only does Duff get to play her from a youthful 20 right up to old age, but she also moves across historical epochs.
“The play was like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s like a pentathlon,” she says. “The chutzpah that Ella has, the balls to bloody do that…”
You sense having chutzpah is something Duff values in those she works with – and she herself has a quick intelligence and fiery convictions. She’s got a reputation as a tricky interviewee but proves warm, with a ready laugh; if it’s clear Duff doesn’t suffer fools (or personal questions), she does make passionately well-articulated arguments about gender, class, the importance of the arts and the need to widen access.
I’m reluctant to dub May a “strong female character” – or indeed an excellent part for an “older” woman – what with both becoming cliché topics that any actress over 25 gets asked about by rote. But it’s Duff herself who raises the issues.
“It’s great getting to investigate different chapters of a woman’s life, and some of them you never see on TV or on stage. You’re allowed up to [age] 50 – and even after 35 it all gets a bit slim pickings.”
Not that you’d know it to look at Duff’s career. Whether it’s starring in the film Suffragette, flooring critics on stage in Saint Joan, or playing TV tough cop in From Darkness, her performances often have multifaceted, diamond-hard intensity. It was there right from her break-out role as Fiona Gallagher in Shameless in 2004 – where she met her husband-to-be, James McAvoy. The pair divorced last year, but have a six-year-old son together.
“I’m insanely lucky, I’ve been asked to play really interesting women,” she acknowledges. “That’s what people want to watch. Of course they do.” She parrots my next question for me – “but have we still got a way to go?” – before answering with an eye-rolling, joshing bellow: “Totally!”
Still, she’s feeling optimistic, suggesting there’s a new generation giving women of all ages a voice. “I think it is a really exciting time. The American girls have really helped us out: Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, people just being so vocal. But we need it to spread to working-class women as well – everybody needs to feel part of the debate.”
Duff grew up on a council estate in Hayes, in west London; her parents, Irish immigrants, worked in a shoe shop and as a painter-decorator. But when a young Duff discovered her local youth theatre, it changed her life: she became obsessed with reading plays and gobbling up accounts of the Royal Court in the Sixties. It may sound an unlikely teenage passion, but we discuss how, at that age, certain things can just click.
“It’s like a writer who reads Hemingway, and their whole life changes – it’s a really powerful feeling. That’s why we’re always banging on about arts education, but it is really, really important: it realises people.”
It wasn’t easy for Duff to turn her youthful fascination into a career. “I was bloody minded, but no one took me seriously at all; at school everyone thought I was an arse. It was a real Thatcherite hell, and I was clinging on by my fingernails: just getting into drama school, not having enough money to live on.”
Dispiritingly, however, she thinks it would be even harder today. Not only is social mobility stuttering in an age of austerity and punishing higher education fees, but so, she suggests, is aspiration among young working-class women. “Where I grew up, I suspect the idea of sitting in the Almeida rehearsal room would feel so much further away today. People just don’t feel entitled to have aspirations. I don’t know how you fix that in young people – it’s about making them feel capable.”
Which links back to Oil. The drama offers a forensic look at a mother-daughter relationship, in all its hostile, tender, smothering, sneering complexity. But ultimately, Duff suggests, “your responsibility as a parent is making your children feel capable – and that may mean they’re capable of never, ever needing you again. It’s the greatest act and the most difficult act. Everyone wants to be loved and needed, especially [by their] child”.
Her character May also uses the need to provide for her kid as an excuse for capitalist, imperialist, or just downright greedy behaviour. Now, not all of us work for Western oil companies, but Duff points out that we are all guilty of making excuses about our consumption in the name of wanting what’s best for our loved ones.
“We’re all culpable: ‘I need to drive my child to school; of course they can’t be cold in the winter’. The play forces us all to look at ourselves – it’s crackling with something that people will hopefully be trying to unravel for a long time after.”
Duff herself won’t have long to mull over it – she’s starting shooting a film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella about a disastrous honeymoon, On Chesil Beach, soon after. “It’s a beautiful script,” she says, before musing on how McEwan’s writing is deceptively simple. “He’s quite spare, and you don’t think he is because he’s such a brilliant writer. You look for stuff and it isn’t there – you have to come up with it. It’s like a play.”
Which is fine by Duff, because theatre is still very much her first love. She’s ferociously protective of it too, bigging up the need for affordable ticket schemes and damning “utterly ridiculous” West End prices reaching into three-figures.
And she warns of a creeping trend towards West End transfers being the only signifier of success. “Look at affirmations like the Olivier awards: if you have a production born in a subsidised house, in order for it to be recognised it has to make a West End transfer. Does that affect the choices we make in some subsidised houses? You start to worry about that a wee bit.”
Or Duff does, at least, because she only works in subsidised theatres. Is that a deliberate choice, I ask? “It is if I’m honest. Because that’s where the interesting work is done. That’s where you can take huge risks – and that’s where people don’t have to pay £150 a ticket,” she says, apparently serious to the last about the need for everyone to be able to see great art. Then she breaks into a big grin: “Also, it’s sexier. It just is!”
‘Oil’ is at the Almeida in London until 26 November