Reclaim Shakespeare Company ‘actors.’ Photo: David Hoffman
Last night, I found myself on stage in London, facing a packed Noel Coward Theatre during a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in London’s West End. I’m not an actor. In fact, I haven’t really been on stage since my pre-teen years. With my heart banging in my chest and my mind racing, I stepped through the looking glass separating actor from audience. From the stalls, I climbed up the steps to the stage, blinked in the lights and took a deep breath…
I am involved with a group called the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. Some of us come from a background of activism or the arts, some just heard about what the group was doing and wanted to be a part of it. We have been performing two-minute pieces just before or during the interval of Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions sponsored by BP. Last night was our eighth performance. We use the language from the plays to open up debate – I like to think that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would have engaged with this issue.
Reclaim Shakespeare Company formed because corporations are stepping up to fill a small part of the gap in arts funding left by government cuts. It is easy to see who benefits more from these relationships: corporates hope to mend their tarnished image by tossing some crumbs from the table to arts institutions, and to shrink the space for subversive narratives and interventions.
BP needs to mend its image more than art institutions need their money. Through the Deep Water Horizon oil disaster and a series of extreme weather events, the Global North has been forced to confront head-on the destructive nature of our addiction to oil. BP fought liabilities and is still chasing the last drops of oil – despite the economic and environmental costs of doing so – through their risky exploits in the Arctic and the Canadian tar sands. This oil will come to the markets in coming decades, when we should have moved to existing clean technologies. Their business model relies on dangerous climate change and the destruction of the earth and life as we know it.
Our performance went well. One of the actors stopped security from removing us from the stage, applauded us and then congratulated us personally. We also had support from another actor through a series of tweets and a picture taken of our performance as the actors huddled at the side of the stage to see. It still makes me laugh and cringe simultaneously to think about this.
We know that we are having an impact. RSC Playwright in Residence Mark Ravenhill revealed during a talk at the Latitude Festival this summer that there was now a huge debate going on within the RSC about BP. As the BP-sponsored season draws to a close this month, all eyes are on new RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran – who also directed this production of Much Ado About Nothing – to see if he continues the relationship beyond the World Shakespeare Festival. It doesn’t have to be this way. The National Gallery ended a long-running sponsorship deal with an arms company earlier this month. In the words of Muzz Khan, one of the cast from Much Ado About Nothing: ‘It’s good to fight for what you believe in. I hope we can get somebody else instead of BP.’