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Emma Thompson and Caryl Churchill back ‘biggest ever’ anti-BP protest at RSC

BP characters in the 'mischief' mob, part of a protest festival organised by campaign group BP or Not BP? Photo: Diana More
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The Royal Shakespeare Company has once again become the target of environmental activists, who have staged their largest protest to date against the company’s ongoing sponsorship deal with oil and gas giant BP.

Among those backing the activity are Caryl Churchill and Emma Thompson, who described BP’s funding of a ticket scheme for young audiences at the RSC as “particularly galling”.

Campaign group BP or Not BP? carried out a ‘protest festival’ at the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon home on June 16 featuring more than 70 performers, the largest it has aimed towards a theatre company.

It accused the RSC of hypocrisy for staging plays about freedom of speech as part of its annual Mischief Festival, while continuing to accept money from BP, which campaigners say is “deeply complicit in the repression of protest around the world”.

The group has been calling on the RSC to end its relationship with BP since 2012. BP sponsors the RSC’s £5 tickets scheme for 16-25s, and its young person’s Shakespeare pass.

The protest comprised 10 different performances including Shakespeare-themed sketches, music, poetry and a troupe of wrestling clowns. A series of phrases condemning BP and the RSC’s relationship were later projected on to the RSC’s building as darkness fell.

Thompson, who is a vocal campaigner against climate change, told The Stage she saw “a really stark contradiction between the work and values of the RSC and its choice of BP as a sponsor”.

“It’s particularly galling to see BP branding affordable tickets for young people, when that same company is drilling, spilling and fracking away their futures. When entire cities, including New York, are not just dropping fossil fuel companies but suing BP and others for climate change damages, it’s hard to understand why the RSC is still clinging on to this dirty industry so tightly,” she said.

The event also included a flashmob performance of songs from the RSC’s musical Matilda, with the lyrics reworded to condemn BP.

Activist Helen Glynn said using songs from the hit West End musical had been deliberate.

“Matilda the Musical is helping to net the RSC about £4 million of surplus every year – around nine times as much money as it gets from BP. The RSC could provide discounted tickets for young people, without BP sponsorship, using a fraction of its Matilda income. That way, it could build its future audience without helping to destroy that same future,” she said.

Churchill added: “It’s hard to believe the RSC are still advertising fossil fuels by accepting BP sponsorship, which so many other arts organisations have rejected it. It’s no good the RSC saying BP tickets help the young enjoy theatre, while endangering the world the young will have to live in.”

The RSC did not intervene in the protest, and executive director Catherine Mallyon said the company believed in the right to protest peacefully.

She argued corporate sponsorship is “an important part of [the RSC’s] diverse funding mix”, alongside box office and commercial activity, public funding and private giving.

“BP’s sponsorship of our £5 ticket scheme for 16-25 year olds gives many young people the chance to see our work. The scheme is highly valued by our audiences and helps us establish lifetime enthusiasts for Shakespeare and live theatre. Importantly, no sponsor influences or drives our artistic decision making and we remain committed to exploring contemporary issues and ideas in all our work.”

The protest was BP or Not BP?’s 50th against arts sponsorship by fossil fuel companies, with other targets including the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Tate, which dropped BP as a sponsor in 2016.

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