The Royal Shakespeare Company has finally capitulated to pressure and ended its sponsorship deal with BP, which was due to run until 2022. The long-overdue break came following action by school students who threatened a boycott of the RSC’s productions because of its ongoing association with the fossil fuel company. A report published in the journal Climate Change in 2013 identified BP as high on the list of 90 companies that between them have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the industrial age.
“Young people are now saying to us that BP’s sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message,” the RSC said in a statement. Indeed it cannot. The pressure has been building from activist theatre company BP or Not BP, as well as the potential boycott from young people. And in July, Mark Rylance renounced his associate status with the RSC because of its links to BP. At the time, the venue was still saying that the ending of sponsorship had to be “phased and pragmatic”.
It may have taken an inordinately long time to respond to that mounting pressure, but nonetheless the RSC deserves credit for showing some leadership on this matter. We all know that it comes at a time when there is increasing nervousness about funding of the arts by central government via Arts Council England.
The RSC’s move will make it much harder for other arts institutions such as the Royal Opera House, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery to keep taking money from oil companies on the grounds that it helps widen access. It may signal the start of the arts world distancing itself from oil companies.
On Friday, the National Theatre also announced that its partnership with Shell would come to an end next year. This is only right as the organisation has declared a climate emergency; it would be hypocrisy to continue a relationship with an oil company while exploring how theatre can be part of the solution for climate change rather than a contributor.
Following its own move, the RSC made a statement saying: “We are committed to sharing our work with the widest possible audience and the £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds remains a priority.”
So it should. The RSC must be seen not only to commit to continuing the scheme but to ensuring it does continue. If it is curtailed in any way, it will look as if the RSC is penalising the young because they had the integrity and moral courage to say that while they love the opportunity to see the company’s work cheaply and appreciate the offer, they are not prepared to do it under conditions that allow BP to wash its money clean.
Today’s young people know they are the ones who bear the burden of the climate emergency created by those of us who came before, and they have no truck with outmoded ideas that argue that wherever the money comes from if it goes into the arts and is used for a very good cause – such as cheap seats for the young and disadvantaged – it becomes good money.
It doesn’t, the taint remains, and it is clear that the tipping point for the RSC was the recognition that short-term gain in continuing to accept oil money would lead to a long-term loss of future audiences. After all, a scheme such as the 16-to-25 discount is as much a benefit to the RSC in terms of audience development as it is to the individual young people who have taken advantage of the scheme and who would otherwise not be able to attend RSC productions. It’s the Jesuits’ ‘get ’em young’ approach: theatregoing is a habit.
The RSC must, if necessary, put its money where its mouth is and if it cannot immediately replace BP’s sponsorship money, it must support it from its own coffers. During the past financial year 2018/19, its annual total income was £86.4 million – including £14.9 million from the taxpayer via national portfolio organisation funding from the Arts Council. Its total expenditure was £82.9 million, giving a surplus of £3.4 million. This suggests that the shortfall from the loss of the BP money could and should be plugged until other arrangements can be made.
It is important, because a failure to keep the scheme going would be a failure of the RSC’s commitment to young people. When theatres and arts organisations feel the pinch, it often offers a demonstration of their true values and whether they see their access schemes or work with youth or community as absolutely essential or simply a nice add-on – nice, as long as someone else is footing the cost for it.
It’s by no means easy to run a vast organisation such as the RSC, but now it has shown leadership on this issue, it must continue to show it by ensuring that young people and those most in need still have access to its work. Otherwise why bother doing it?
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner