Mark Rylance: why I’m resigning from the RSC

An abridged version of this article by Mark Rylance appears in the Guardian, along with this news story.

‘BP or not BP? That is the question’

An RSC Hamlet questions the state of Denmark

Mark Rylance as Romeo

Mark Rylance as Hamlet and Rebecca Saire as Ophelia at the RSC in 1989

Do you remember being told as a child not to accept gifts from strangers? Strangers are not necessarily friends. Shakespeare uses the word to mean unnatural, unimaginable, even monstrous. If a stranger gives you something they may want something back in return. On the other hand, Jesus Christ was often a stranger at the door, Zeus came to earth disguised as a stranger and in many cultures a stranger always brings gifts to a first meeting.

So when we become adults are there occasions when we can accept gifts from strangers? There are times when we may rely for our survival on the charity of strangers. It looks like those times are on the rise for many citizens of the world, as I read the predictions of a two metre rise in sea levels by the time children born today are 81 years old.

As a teenager, disenchanted with religion, I turned to Shakespeare for guidance in ethical questions. I was inspired by the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I witnessed social repression and liberality, denial and acceptance of the truth, and always the cause and consequences of our actions. I learnt what it was to be human. They represented the ultimate company of conscious artists, speaking and playing Shakespeare for the people. The best of British. This is still their international reputation; their brand, if you are lucky enough to be associated with them.

RSC auditorium

In my twenties I was fortunate to join the company, play Hamlet and Romeo, and become an Associate Artist. I have been delighted ever since to be associated with thousands of artists and audiences who have made the RSC what it is. And yet today I feel that I must disassociate myself from the RSC, not because it is any less of a theatre company but because of the company it keeps.

I have been repeatedly informed that a strong debate is taking place within the RSC about its sponsorship deal with BP and I should be patient. Is BP a stranger or a friend? That’s the question.

In 2012, when the RSC first associated itself with BP, I joined a number of others in signing a letter in the Guardian expressing our concern that the RSC ‘is allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities’. We drew attention to ‘the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill [which] continues to devastate ecosystems and communities, and the highly polluting extraction of tar sands oil [which] brings us rapidly closer to the point of no return from climate change’ and argued that ‘BP has no place in arts sponsorship’. We committed ourselves instead ‘to finding more responsible ways to finance this country’s cultural life, for our own and future generations.’ We felt BP was buying the impression that it too had the consciousness of Shakespeare and the artists of the RSC. At the same time, activist theatre group BP or not BP? began a series of Shakespearean stage invasions in protest at the sponsor.

In the wake of the criticism, the RSC desisted in putting BP logos on more plays. However, the following year, BP started sponsoring the £5 ticket scheme for 16-25-year-olds. Then in 2016 BP announced that they had signed a five year contract for the partnership to continue until 2022.

At that time, I wrote to the RSC again, and raised my concerns in the press. I received strong letters from a couple of BP employees who were very much in support of what BP are trying to do. “Don’t you understand the connection between all of our pensions and BP’s profits?” they asked me. “Do I want a pension from a stranger?” I asked myself.

But this arts sponsorship business is tricky. I would love nothing more than increased support for the imaginative arts, athletics and sciences of Britain. So I met with the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, to find out if my suspicions about BP were wrong. He told me:

“I worked closely with senior leaders in BP for more than a decade, intent on helping them radically change course. That work came to an end when I came to the incontrovertible conclusion that BP is neither sincere nor serious in addressing the climate crisis. Together with other oil majors, BP has been accused of fully understanding the science of climate change as far back as the early 1980s, and downplaying and obscuring that science ever since, always in the short-term interests of its shareholders. Regrettably, its current leadership is stuck in the same pattern – all the time using philanthropy to hide its past and present culpability.”

The early 1980s! This is 2019. Fifty percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere currently warming our planet have been emitted in the last 30 years. BP has made the third biggest contribution to climate change of any company in history. It knew 30 years ago we were about to cook our planet, and then lit the fire.

And this is not just about the past, this is about the future. The climate crisis could now not be more urgent, and to tackle it climate scientists, of which we have many of the finest, strongly advise that the majority of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground to give us a good chance of maintaining a livable planet. But BP plans to continue extracting and exploring for more fossil fuels for decades into the future.

Despite its current advertising campaign, which suggests the company is investing heavily in renewables, in reality 97% of its capital expenditure will remain in oil and gas and the company has committed to invest £41 billion in new oil extraction over the next 10 years.

desmog - aberdeen gallery - bp

BP is also a powerful lobbyist. It recently topped the list of firms obstructing climate action around the world and has been successfully lobbying Trump for access to Arctic oil. And let’s not forget, BP also lobbied hard for our involvement in the Iraq war, after inspecting the vast Iraqi oilfields of course. What war machine was ever designed with fuel efficiency in mind? Are they a stranger or a friend?

I wonder how much BP are actually giving the RSC? UK oil companies operating in the North Sea, of which BP is one of the biggest, benefit from billions in tax breaks and subsidies, so in reality they are taking much more from the public purse than they are ‘giving back’ in sponsorship. Over the next five years the government is likely to give oil companies around £5bn more than it receives from them in tax revenues. In 2016, BP paid no UK tax but actually received around £210 million via various subsidies, despite making a profit. In comparison it is giving £7.5 million to four cultural institutions over 5 years, and getting further tax relief for this.

If oil companies were taxed properly this could not only pay for greater public funding of the arts, sciences and health services, but could support the rapid transition to green energy we desperately need. Instead, the government has been ‘actively dismantling’ the solar industry.


Mark Rylance as Romeo, Georgia Slowe as Juliet and Patrick Godfrey as Friar Lawrence at the RSC in 1989

Does this company have the right to associate itself with Shakespeare? Does it even have the right to have the word ‘British’ in its name when it is arguably destroying the planet our children and grandchildren will depend on to breathe, drink, eat and survive?

Back in 2017 I wrote again privately to the RSC. I thought my role as an Associate was to press these matters reasonably within the organization, and felt that when the RSC associates itself with a sponsor, it associates all RSC Associate Artists with that sponsor too.

I welcomed the recent Donation and Sponsorship Policy. I applauded the statement that any sponsor must ‘reflect the integrity of the RSC’. But who determines the “integrity” of the sponsor?, I asked.

What is the integrity of the RSC if we don’t state any exclusions? I remember, back in the eighties, my friend Jonathan Pryce leading the company in refusing money from a bank supporting Apartheid. Was that wrong? Are we happy to take money from anyone? I know we are not. The RSC should have a clearer statement on this, I argued, and perhaps Associate Artists could contribute to it. Business people are a great help running a theatre, in my experience, but they don’t always have the same sensitivities about society as artists, even theatre artists!

Around this time it was also reported to me that one director at the RSC, who was mounting a play about climate change, said she felt uncomfortable about receiving any sponsorship from BP. Apparently she was told it was fine if she refused the BP association, but then there would be no £5 tickets for her production. So the campaign group Culture Unstained created an alternative, crowdfunded ticket scheme for young people who didn’t want to be associated with BP – ‘Fossil Free £5 tickets‘ – and a number of us donated funds.

I also submitted a question at the RSC’s 2017 AGM and many months later, after chasing, I received this:

“In reply to your question, our Chairman, talked about BP’s sponsorship of our ticket scheme which has allowed so many young people the chance to see our work, with over 62,000 tickets sold thanks to their support. He explained the RSC’s sponsorship policy, saying that we assess potential donation and sponsorships individually against three principles – they must support the charitable objectives of the RSC, reflect the integrity of the RSC and not influence the RSC’s artistic decisions. Our chairman talked about our integrity relating to our charitable objectives and our requirement to raise funds from a range of sources to support these. It was then confirmed that possible ways to further involve the RSC’s valued Associate Artists were already underway, welcoming their support through private consultation.”

I have waited a couple of years for that private consultation, uncertain about what to do. Hearing nothing, I recently let the RSC know that 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 any company or individual who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor do I believe would William Shakespeare.

We must be ‘phased and pragmatic’ was the response I received. Meanwhile the RSC will continue 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 to the climate crisis now, acknowledge we are in an unprecedented global emergency, and act accordingly. Surely the RSC wants to be on the side of the world-changing kids, not the world-killing companies?


Glasgow schoolchildren take part in a nationwide student climate strike in February 2019

They apologized sincerely for not moving faster. Times are hard. “It is challenging to find any money that is not compromised somewhere down the line. As Timon says: Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.”

Good point. Is all charitable money tainted? I hope not. It is all “excess” money of course, but not necessarily created through consciously destructive activities. When the National Portrait Gallery took an ethical stance on the Sackler Trust recently, it set in motion a whole series of cultural organizations rejecting Sackler funding. This ethical realignment needs to be happening with fossil fuel companies too.

I do not write this in anger or righteousness. I am no better than anyone else. We are all together in this crisis and we all must change, willingly or unwillingly. I make this resignation to lend strength to the voices within the RSC who want to be progressive. I imagine the business people on the board are resisting and they need to know it is important to the artists. I hope it is. I have no way within the RSC of communicating with my fellow Associate Artists, so I am forced to go public to raise the matter with them and encourage them to express themselves too.

BP logo surrounded by cracks small. Photo by Diana More

BP or not BP? create a huge ‘permafrost crack’ in the floor of the British Museum in protest at BP sponsorship of its exhibitions, in December 2017

The RSC is well-placed to make a really positive statement about the responsibility of cultural organizations to act on the climate crisis. It could lead the way, for the other BP-sponsored institutions (National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Royal Opera House and Science Museum Group) to follow. The RSC could at least commit now not to renew the current contract.

I really think they could turn this situation on its head and give the 62,000 young people much more value than a cheap £5 ticket to a Shakespeare play. They could give them the support of Shakespeare in their stand against our addiction to energy dealers who would willingly destroy us for a quick quid.

The children know the truth. Tough love. In the face of addiction, tough love is the only path. It’s time for an artistic intervention.


An abridged version of this article was published by the Guardian on Friday 21st June 2019.