It was Sunday afternoon at the British Museum, and things seemed pretty normal. The new BP-sponsored Shakespeare exhibition had a steady flow of visitors, browsing through a series of artefacts linked to the Bard’s life and works. A few security guards kept an idle eye on the proceedings, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Then the chanting began.
Double double, oil and trouble
Tar sands burn and greenwash bubble
It started as a single, quiet voice, echoing around the final room in the exhibition – a brightly lit area dotted with display cabinets. Then more voices joined in, and more, until it became a rousing chorus, emanating from perhaps a dozen people scattered through the space. As suddenly as it had begun, the chanting ceased – and three smartly dressed figures leapt, cackling, into the centre of the room, each wearing a cap with a bright green BP logo. The first figure spoke:
‘When shall BP meet again?
In tar sands? Oil spills? Toxic rain?’
An answering cry rose from the second of these Wyrd Executives:
‘When the sponsorship is done.’
And a third:
‘That will be – ere 2012!’
Surprised gallery-goers watched in fascination as the three evil BP representatives proceeded to draw a naive Museum Director (the ‘thane of Great Russell Street’) into their dastardly web of oil sponsorship. By the time an angry customer had confronted the Museum Director to demand that he change his ways (‘all these shiny exhibits cannot sweeten these soiled hands’), the security guards had had enough, and swept in to remove the performers.
As we were hustled out of the building, I decided to break out of character (I was playing the Museum Director) and announce to the watching crowds: ‘Look! Our friends the security guards are helpfully removing these BP Executives from the museum. Why not remove BP from your museum experience by ripping their logo from your gallery brochure?” I’m not sure if anyone took up this suggestion, but hopefully by that time we’d already made our point. You can see a short film of the whole adventure at the top of this article.
This was the fifth anarcho-thespian intervention by the newly-formed Reclaim Shakespeare Company, a group of theatre-lovers who have come together to challenge the fossil fuel industry’s growing grip over the arts. Members of our merry troupe had previously trod the boards at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, leaping up to perform short unexpected preludes before BP-sponsored productions of The Tempest and Twelfth Night.
I myself had donned an enormous ruff in the shape of the BP logo and smeared myself in ‘oil”’ as part of a pop-up performance before The Comedy of Errors at the Roundhouse (which just happened to coincide with a BP staff outing to the theatre).
And another of our guerrilla players had provided a surprise warm-up act at the Riverside Studios, pointing out the hypocrisy of the World Shakespeare Festival hosting an Iraqi production of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad while taking money from an oil company that lobbied furiously in favour of the invasion of that country.
BP has been a major sponsor of the arts for some time, but this year it went into overdrive, sloshing money at the World Shakespeare Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum as part of its Olympic sponsorship deal. It’s not doing this out of the goodness of its heart; at its AGM in April Ian Conn, BP’s Chief Executive for Refining and Marketing, admitted that this was all about ‘brand protection and connection with customers and society’, and to ‘enhance their relationship with strategic commercial partners’. Sadly, this sort of thing works – market research in February 2012 showed that 38 per cent of people who’d seen BP’s Olympics advertising believed that they were becoming a greener company, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
(It would be interesting to know if that figure has changed after three months of anti-BP-sponsorship protests; not just our Shakespearean adventures but things like this and this and this.)
At the same time, BP have effectively silenced many artists who would otherwise have spoken out against them. When the UK Tar Sands Network canvassed the theatre world to find people willing to sign an anti-BP sponsorship letter in the Guardian, they found numerous theatre professionals who agreed with the message but were afraid of voicing their feelings publicly for fear of losing future funding.
In the words of the Bard himself: Enough, no more! We won’t let fossil fuel giants like BP use our arts and culture as a fig leaf to hide their dirty deeds. Removing their influence from our public institutions is a vital step towards reducing their political power as well, giving us a much better chance of building a fair and sustainable society (and a society with decent public funding for the arts). Please get in touch if you’d like to help – by joining us at a future guerrilla performance (or staging one yourself), finding supporters within the theatre world, or encouraging theatres and other institutions to adopt ethical sponsorship policies.
Now is the summer of our discontent. Out, damn sponsor!