From 1982 The RSC at the Barbican made Shakespeare a real presence in London. The theatre was easy to get to with a new tube station, it had a thousand comfortable seats and air-con. The first RSC shows, directed by Trevor Nunn, starred Patrick Stewart, Timothy Dalton and Harriet Walter. That was all made possible by the generosity of the City of London Corporation who funded it with millions of pounds. In 1991 the RSC left London and that culture has never been replaced.
That was the result of an action based on high principles, by then artistic director Adrian Noble who decided that the company might be good enough for Dame Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes but it needed American stars to make it sexy, and he worried that it was too ‘elitist,’ only seen by a select group who really liked Shakespeare.
‘We want to put on Shakespeare in the heart of the West End,’ Noble explained. ‘In larger venues where more people can see them.’ The trouble was, the move to ‘theatreland,’ saw Shakespeare turned into cultural fodder for tourists who slept through most performances, ticket prices escalated and most theatres preferred the security of putting on musicals. Adrian Noble was perhaps the first example of extreme arts posturing in the face of reality, and that may be his legacy as now as it seems everyone in the arts is doing it.
Last year The Science Museum Group faced an open letter from nearly fifty scientists objecting to its partnerships with companies involved in the fossil-fuel industry. The Science Museum in Manchester lost three major exhibitors from their Science Festival in protest at their sponsorship from Shell Oil. In March the National Portrait Gallery had to refuse a £1 million donation from the wealthy US Sackler family after their pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma LP was linked in news reports to the addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin.
Jess Worth, co-director of the pious sounding pressure group, ‘Culture Unstained,’ said: ‘This raises the question of whether the gallery will now apply the same standards to its BP sponsorship in the midst of a climate crisis. BP sponsorship now, like the Sackler donation, looks ethically untenable.’
She was right. In June anti-oil activists blocked the NPG’s entrance to protest against BP sponsorship. In July seventy eight artists including Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor signed a letter demanding that the gallery drop its contact with BP, which spends £7.5 million per year on arts and has sponsored their Portrait Award for thirty years.
At the same time, the group Extinction Rebellion staged die-ins at the Tate Modern and the Natural History Museum. ‘Culture Unstained’ lobbied the British and Science museum to end oil sponsorship and published research linking BP to Russia and human rights abuses abroad. They are also part of the Art Not Oil coalition, which includes groups like ‘Liberate Tate,’ a collective of activists who ‘explore the role of creative intervention in social change.’
Now the RSC is after the zeitgeist again, deciding to end its links with BP. Rylance.** The reason given is that school children have threatened to boycott them. Children had written them a letter calling their link with BP, ‘A stain.’ That word again.
‘Young people are telling us that BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC,’ said a spokesperson. The pomposity of this might be funny if it weren’t that BP has subsidised their £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds for eight years, allowing 80,000 young people to see RSC performances at reduced rates.
It seems that we now live in a bizarre world where children not only refuse to go to the theatre but threaten to close them down if they don’t like their accounts. Major global companies bow down before them, and leading directors are intimidated by abusive Tweets.
Children, tiresome celebs and virtue signalling ‘artists’, are feeding into a new culture of virtue-signalling ‘environmentalism’ which is fast becoming part of a broader anti-capitalism movement, crossing from peaceful protest into civil disobedience, and perhaps soon into a new form of terrorism.
These movements are not just about protecting the ice-cap. Last year, a third of the artists featured in an exhibition of political protest at London’s Design Museum pulled out because the museum had hosted an event for an Italian company specialising in aerospace, defence and security. Several artists and performers dropped out of the Great Exhibition of the North, in Newcastle-Gateshead, after BAE Systems was named as a main partner. Like the Greenham Women, they don’t think the West should defend itself.
It should also be pointed out that the Sackler family have been tried in the court of public opinion, as Jewish plutocrats they have been targeted in this intensifying ideological war. They have denied allegations in lawsuits that they contributed to the US opioid crisis, pointing out heroin as more significant than prescription painkillers.
Sir David Attenborough recently said that it’s not possible ‘to be radical enough.’ Does he really want to be represented by humourless little girls and green hardliners who are really anti-capitalists in disguise ? At its recent conference Labour promised to ‘fix the planet,’ if it gets into power.
No one (apart from Ken Clarke) would want to take money from a cigarette company, but while no one is forced to smoke, take heroin or to go to the theatre, and we all still rely on gas and oil. Like the need for bums on seats in the theatre, that is the reality. The answer surely lies not in striking poses but in laborious international agreements about reducing fossil fuel and working on better technology and cutting down waste; each one of us can stage an individual revolution in our own lives; giving up our reckless use of water, petrol, mobile phones, wood-burners, meat, including cat food, cheap clothing and all those little extras like patio heaters and air-tickets. Let’s hope we can make these changes quietly, without turning into ruthlessly self-righteous, posturing puritans.
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