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Royal Shakespeare Company theater, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

Royal Shakespeare Company Ends Partnership with Oil Giant BP

After British school students and activists signed an open letter threatening to boycott the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) if it did not drop its sponsorship deal with British Petroleum (BP), the theater organization announced it will terminate its partnership at the end of the year. The company said it “could not ignore” the “strength of feeling” against the deal.

The oil company, which has supported the RSC since 2011, said it was “disappointed and dismayed” that the partnership had reached a “premature” end. “Over the past eight years our sponsorship has enabled 80,000 young people to see RSC performances at reduced rates,” reads a statement on the company’s website.

It continues by saying it shares “many of the concerns that apparently contributed to the decision” and wants to commit to making energy “cleaner and better.” “The increasing polarization of debate, and attempts to exclude companies committed to making real progress, is exactly what is not needed.”

BP’s funding of tickets for youth between sixteen and twenty-five years of age was one of the main criticisms in the students’ letter. “This means that if we, as young people, wish to see an affordable play at your theater we have to help to promote a company that is actively destroying our futures by wrecking the climate,” the letter states.  

Backlash over the RSC’s relationship to BP isn’t new. When former RSC associate artist Mark Rylance stepped down over the partnership with the fossil fuel giant in June, he wrote in his resignation letter: “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman, or anyone who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.”

Gregory Doran and Catherine Mallyon, the RSC’s artistic and executive directors, said that the decision was difficult and had not been made “lightly or swiftly.” “Young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC,” they said in a statement.

The news comes as organizers continue to mount pressure against BP’s arts funding. BP spends $9.2 million each year on arts and cultural institutions, including the British Museum, London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Opera House (it cut off funding to the Tate, after twenty-six years of support, in 2017).

In June, seventy-eight artists, including Sarah LucasAllen Jones, and Anish Kapoor signed an open letter condemning London’s National Portrait Gallery for accepting BP funding for the museum’s annual BP Portrait Award. And, in July, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced the institution would continue to accept money from BP, a move that prompted museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif’s resignation

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