June 17, 2018

RSC hit by spectacular protest festival against BP sponsorship

Press release by BP or not BP?

  • More than 70 performers take part in day of unsanctioned performances outside RSC venues, culminating in a musical invasion of the theatre foyer and a guerrilla projection
  • Protest was timed to coincide with the RSC’s own “Mischief Festival”
  • Rebel “Fossil Free Mischief Festival” featured a “Mischief Mob” of Shakespearean characters, live music, poets, wrestling clowns and a Shakespearean Insult Booth.
  • RSC accused of hypocrisy for staging plays championing freedom of protest while promoting the oil giant BP
  • BP’s collusion with regimes repressing protest around the world highlighted in the performances

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, UK — Yesterday (Saturday June 16th), more than 70 performers gathered outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and held a rebel festival in protest at the RSC’s sponsorship deal with BP. The festival featured ten different performances over five hours, culminating in the performers entering the theatre building and singing around the BP logo in the foyer. When darkness fell, there was one last surprise: a series of phrases were projected, large-scale, onto the outside of the theatre, including “BP also sponsors: repressive regimes” and “BP: out, damned logo!”.

The RSC has faced multiple creative protests over its controversial choice of sponsor since first branding its plays with BP logos in 2012 [1], but this was the largest intervention the theatre company has yet faced. The RSC did not intervene in the rebel festival and it went ahead as planned.

The unsanctioned event – organised by activist theatre group BP or not BP? [2] – challenged the RSC’s controversial relationship with the oil giant, using Shakespeare-themed sketches, poetry, song, a spoof lip sync battle, a troupe of wrestling clowns, a musical flashmob and a performance highlighting BP’s negative global impacts. The group also set up a “Shakespearean Insult Booth”, where members of the public were filmed throwing Bard-inspired insults at BP.

This was BP or not BP?’s 50th rebel performance against oil sponsorship of the arts [3]. Yesterday’s “Fossil Free Mischief Festival” aimed to highlight BP’s destructive activities around the world and call on the RSC to adopt more ethical funding practices. Almost 1,000 flyers were distributed to theatre-goers and the public, the majority of whom were supportive of the protest.

The opening “Mischief Mob” performance by BP or not BP? featured a large cast of Shakespearean characters being bribed and bullied by BP into doing the oil company’s bidding. However, three Matildas – as featured in Matilda The Musical, which is owned by the RSC – led a rebellion against BP using songs, audience participation and vegan cream pies. Finally, Caliban from The Tempest summoned a dancing storm – with the help of the audience – to defeat BP. The performance was repeated later in the afternoon to catch audiences leaving the matinees.

The day also featured:

* A recreation of BP or not BP?’s first ever performance – a 2012 stage invasion at the RSC
* Live poetry from Nadeem Din-Gabisi and Handsen Chikowore
* An outrageous drag lip sync battle between spectacularly dressed fossil fuel and renewable energy characters
* Music and poetry from Pete the Temp
* An extraordinary wrestling match pitting Oil, Coal and Fracking against Tidal, Wind and Solar Power, featuring true-to-life fossil fuel bribery and corruption, by the RenewRebels clown troupe.
* A ceremonial performance called #BPAlsoSponsors at the RSC’s studio theatre, the Other Place

The RSC’s own “Mischief Festival” is taking place at the Other Place theatre, featuring a double-bill of plays about freedom of protest and freedom of speech [4]. BP or not BP?‘s performance outside the Other Place aimed to highlight the hypocrisy of the RSC staging plays on these topics while partnering with BP. Under a giant BP logo with the words “BP Also Sponsors”, the performers held up phrases like “Repressive Regimes”, “Violence and Corruption”, and “Colonialism”. They read out statements to show how BP is deeply complicit in the repression of protest around the world, through its partnerships with human-rights abusing governments [5] – including Mexico and Turkey, the countries from which the Mischief Festival plays draw their stories [6].

This part of the performance also highlighted the brutal repression of the Indigenous freedom movement in West Papua, a country currently under Indonesian military occupation where BP runs a major natural gas extraction project [7].

According to West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda:

“BP is operating in the middle of a genocide. Since 1963, hundreds of thousands of West Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian occupation, either directly by government forces or through the loss of their homes, their lands and their livelihoods. The money that BP pays to the Indonesian government helps them to buy weapons and ammunition that are used to harass, intimidate and kill my people.”

After leaving the Other Place, around twenty performers – including two people wearing huge ruffs in the shape of the BP logo – then entered the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre and gathered by the board displaying the museum’s sponsors. They sang the song “Revolting Children” from Matilda the Musical, with the following rewritten lyrics:

We are revolting players
These are revolting times
BP’s revolting actions
Make us revolt in rhyme
We’ll be revolting here
Till BP’s out the door
RSC you’d better listen:
We’re revolting

The performers then symbolically marched the BP characters (BPRozencrantz and BPRilldenstern) out of the building, singing all the way.

The performers then packed up and left, but there was one final surprise in store a few hours later: after darkness fell, guerrilla projectionist Feral X arrived at the theatre, and shone the following phrases in large letters across the RSC’s walls:

BP also sponsors: climate change
BP: Out, damned logo!
BP also sponsors: repressive regimes
BP also sponsors: colonialism
BP also sponsors: violence and corruption
BP: you smiling, damned villain

BP specifically sponsors the RSC’s £5 ticket scheme for 16-25 year olds [8]. Campaigners see this as a particularly shameless decision by BP and the RSC, as these are the same young people whose futures the company is threatening with its greenhouse gas emissions and political lobbying against climate action. Young theatre-goers have spoken out against this deal [9], and thrown their support behind an alternative crowdfunded “Fossil Free £5 Tickets” scheme run by the campaigning and research group Culture Unstained [10].

Helen Glynn, a member of BP or not BP?, said:

“We decided to use songs from the RSC’s hit show Matilda the Musical – including Naughty and Revolting Children – in our flashmob performance, along with the character of Matilda herself. Like her, we believe that sometimes you have to stand up for what’s right, even if it means making a little bit of mischief. On top of that, 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 BP to destroy that same future.”

Yesterday’s event is part of a rapidly-growing movement against the public influence of the fossil fuel industry. Creative protests this year have challenged oil sponsorship at the British Museum [11], the Louvre [12], the New Orleans Jazz festival [13] and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum [14]. More than a third of UK universities have now divested from fossil fuels [15], and the city of New York is suing five oil companies – including BP – for their impact on the climate [16]. Hundreds of artists and arts organisations have made a public commitment to never take fossil fuel sponsorship, including the Royal Court and Arcola Theatre [17]. Leading figures in the theatre world – including Maxine Peake, Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Rylance, Caryl Churchill and the theatre critic Lyn Gardner [18] – have taken a public stand against BP sponsorship of the arts.

Notes to Editors

[1] Since 2012 BP or not BP? have carried out Shakespearean stage invasions before the start of numerous BP-sponsored RSC plays (see for example theguardian.com/stage/video/2012/apr/25/rsc-bp-protesters-video and stratford-herald.com/69732-protestors-invade-rsc-stage.html), as well as an Ovid-themed intervention before a talk by RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran in 2017 (bp-or-not-bp.org/2017/09/29/avid-audience-enjoys-ovid-protest/).
[2] bp-or-not-bp.org
[3] bp-or-not-bp.org/performances-and-films
[4] rsc.org.uk/mischief-festival/about-the-festival
[5] cultureunstained.org/badcompany/
[6] The oil company recently signed a major new offshore drilling contract with the repressive Mexican government, and has a significant stake in a controversial new gas pipeline running through Turkey, where legitimate community concerns have been silenced by the authoritarian regime.
[7] newint.org/features/2017/05/01/sacrifice-zone-west-papuan-independence-struggle
[8] rsc.org.uk/students-and-young-people/bp-5-tickets
[9] facebook.com/FossilFreeTix/videos/391061118028003/
[10] cultureunstained.org/fossilfreetix/
[11] hyperallergic.com/421880/culture-unstained-documents-british-museum-bp-russia/
[12] theartnewspaper.com/news/activists-protest-louvre-s-oil-sponsorship
[13] fossilfreefest.org/#about
[14] dutchnews.nl/news/2018/05/protestors-smear-van-gogh-museum-with-oil-in-anti-shell-protest/ and facebook.com/notes/fossil-free-culture-nl/loud-clear-and-huge-12-meter-long-message-to-end-the-fossil-fuel-age-now-fills-t/1840323932936503/
[15] theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/06/edinburgh-university-divests-from-all-fossil-fuels
[16] theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/10/new-york-city-plans-to-divest-5bn-from-fossil-fuels-and-sue-oil-companies
[17] oilsponsorshipfree.org/
[18] Maxine Peake and Vanessa Redgrave are amongst more than 30 theatre figures who are supporting an alternative “Fossil Free £5 ticket” scheme for 16-25 year olds to see plays at the RSC without supporting BP: cultureunstained.org/fossilfreetix . Mark Rylance has spoken out several times against BP sponsorship, for example: thestage.co.uk/news/2016/mark-rylance-i-wont-work-for-the-rsc-while-it-deals-with-bp . Caryl Churchill has also spoken out multiple times, including penning an anti-BP Christmas Carol for a BP or not BP? performance in December last year:thestage.co.uk/news/2017/caryl-churchill-anti-bp-christmas-carol-arts-sponsorship-protest . Lyn Gardner has written critically about BP sponsorship more than once, for example:thestage.co.uk/opinion/2017/lyn-gardner-arts-accept-oil-money/


Photos below, please credit as labelled (Diana More or Ron Fassbender). Hi res versions of these photos, more photos, and film footage of the day is available via info@bp-or-not-bp.org. Photos of the guerrilla projections will be available on request.