Oil’s well that ends well – BP and Mark Rylance

Prologue: Sir Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning English actor, playwright and director, publicly resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) last week in protest at oil giant BP’s sponsorship of the theatre group.  Rylance declaimed in a soliloquy to The Guardian that: “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who wilfully destroys the lives of others alive or unborn. Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.”

Act I: Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that the Bard’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, was himself a tobacconist by virtue of his investment in the colonies of Virginia, the RSC rather fluffed its lines with a response seemingly borrowed from another play entirely.  It declared that: “no sponsor influences or drives our artistic decision making” and that “we are committed to exploring contemporary issues and ideas in all our work.” What artistic direction had to do with their sponsor’s contribution to climate change was surely lost on the groundlings.

Act II: BP, which has been heckled before by action group BP or not BP? on the subject of arts sponsorship, was more rehearsed. It’s leading man, Peter Mather, head of BP in the UK and group regional president for Europe appeared on the Today Programme (1hr 18 mins) on Monday morning.  In what was admittedly something of a mock battle with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Mather nonetheless hit his cues with a very assured performance in which he parried well, making clear the accountability BP felt for climate change but also the complexity of the solutions.  His interview was perhaps most notable however for the lines he smartly left out.  Despite the critical financial contribution that BP makes to the country in tax revenues, employment, research, dividends or indeed sponsorship, at no point did Mather mention money.  He thus avoided the mistake made too often by business in reaching for the implied menaces that underpin an ‘economic impact’ argument, rather than in accepting social change.

Final Act: Since Monday morning, the tale has become more comedy than tragedy, with Maureen Lipman describing Rylance’s boycott in a letter to The Times as “jolly silly” adding that “one day Sir Mark will kick his own britches…methinks the gentleman doth protest too much.”  Another national treasure, Miriam Margolyes has now weighed in behind Rylance, as has Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, indicating that the pressure on the RSC – and BP – could yet escalate.

For other companies it’s clear that corporate sponsorship of the arts is no longer much ado about nothing.  Since the Sackler family ‘voluntarily’ withdrew from a number of artistic sponsorships over its links to the US opioid crisis, galleries, theatre companies, orchestras and concert venues are no doubt weighing up funding requirements against potential reputational risks.  Likewise, for companies, sponsorship of the arts is no longer an easy ticket to establishment credentials.

In BP’s case, it’s legitimate to question the strategic fit between Shakespeare and its core business, and whether that merits the investment, or indeed the criticism.  If BP is serious about climate change, sponsoring the National Portrait Gallery looks like an indulgence, whereas equipping the next generation of renewable energy engineers might have a more practical benefit.  This old style patronage, of the sort Shakespeare might recognise, now looks increasingly out of time.

Nigel Fairbrass

Nigel Fairbrass