Mark Rylance quits RSC over BP sponsorship

  • 31D1D3E700000578-3476643-In_1989_I_saw_Mark_Rylance_playing_Hamlet_for_the_Royal_Shakespe

    Mark Rylance playing Hamlet at the RSC in 1989.

    Oscar-winning actor reveals story of his frustrated attempts to persuade the theatre company to sever ties with the oil giant

  • Rylance says RSC must listen to the young people who have been going on strike from school to persuade adults to act on the climate emergency
  • He calls for an ‘artistic intervention’ and encourages his fellow Associate Artists to also speak out
  • Resignation comes as National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House also face intense pressure over BP sponsorship

Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance has resigned as a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Associate Artist over the theatre company’s ongoing partnership with BP. Announcing his decision in the Guardian, he says the oil giant ‘knew 30 years ago we were about to cook our planet, and then lit the fire’. He also criticises the company’s decision to keep investing 97% of its capital in fossil fuels despite the urgent need to transition away from them.

In a longer version of the article, published on our website, he details several years of frustrated engagement with the RSC on this issue, and that he has come to the conclusion the theatre company needs ‘Tough love, in the face of addiction [to fossil fuels]’.

He writes:

‘I feel I must resign as I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesmen or anyone who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor do I believe would William Shakespeare’ and says ‘I make this resignation to lend strength to the voices within the RSC who want to be progressive, and to encourage my fellow Associate Artists to express themselves too.’

He reveals that, in coming to this position, he consulted leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who worked closely with BP for a decade trying to help it transition away from fossil fuels. Porritt is quoted by Rylance as having:

‘come to the incontrovertible conclusion that BP is neither sincere nor serious in addressing the climate crisis… Regrettably, its current leadership is stuck in the same pattern – all the time using philanthropy to hide its past and present culpability.’

BP sponsors the RSC’s £5 ticket scheme for 16-25 year olds. Rylance argues against ‘pushing BP’s brand onto a generation of young people who have – in huge numbers through the ongoing school climate strikes – told adults they need to step up their response to the climate crisis now. Surely the RSC wants to be on the side of the world-changing kids, not the world-killing companies?’

The RSC has faced multiple creative protests over its controversial choice of sponsor since first branding its plays with BP logos in 2012. Activist theatre group BP or not BP? did a series of Shakespearean stage invasions before BP-sponsored RSC plays in 2012, and has conducted further stage invasions and performance protests since BP started sponsoring the ticket scheme.

The RSC’s ‘BP £5 Tickets’ scheme is due to be sponsored by the oil giant until 2022. Rylance argues this should end much sooner, given the unprecedented urgency of the climate crisis. Young theatre-goers have also spoken out against this deal, and thrown their support – along with leading actors such as Rylance, Emma Thompson, Maxine Peake, Andrew Garfield and Tamsin Greig – behind an alternative ‘Fossil Free £5 Ticket’ scheme which crowdfunds to enable 16-25 year olds to see plays at the RSC for £5 without having to support BP.

The RSC has, over the last few years, accrued a multi-million pound surplus thanks to the success of Matilda the Musical. While funding pressures are real, the RSC is in a financially secure position to take an ethical stance on BP sponsorship

Last week, both the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House came under serious fire for their BP sponsorship deals. On Monday 10 June one of the judges of the BP Portrait Award, and several portrait artists including former winners, spoke out against BP sponsorship on the morning of the award announcement. Then the award ceremony itself was disrupted and delayed when activists from BP or not BP? blockaded all three entrances to the NPG, forcing all the guests to climb over a wall to enter.

On Tuesday 11th The Times reported that over 200 musicians had called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to withdraw permission for BP’s brand to be displayed as part of the Royal Opera House’s ‘BP Big Screens’ that take place annually in Trafalgar Square. Among the signatories were many well-known musicians:

  • From classical music, tenor Mark Padmore, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and composer Nigel Osborne.
  • From folk music, renowned musicians Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, Mercury-nominated musician Sam Lee, and singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn.
  • From pop and rock music, Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, The Levellers and Vile Electrodes.

Then that evening in Trafalgar Square, Extinction Rebellion Lambeth coordinated a large-scale creative protest against BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Opera House, with hundreds of “rebels” taking action at the BP Big Screen.

The other two major cultural institutions to have oil sponsorship deals have also come under increasing pressure over the last year. The British Museum saw the biggest protest in its 260 year history in February over BP’s sponsorship of an exhibition of Assyrian objects from modern-day Iraq. And the Science Museum Group was subject to a formal complaint from nearly 50 leading scientists last July, making the case that its partnerships with BP, Shell and Equinor breach the organisation’s own values and Ethics Policy. The complaint has since been referred to the Museums Association Ethics Committee.

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