Now cracks a noble heart! England’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has lost one of its most famous Hamlets. Mark Rylance, the three-time Tony-winning Bridge of Spies andWolf Hall actor has announced that he is cutting ties with the RSC over its continued embrace of sponsorship from BP. Rylance, who delivered powerful performances as Hamlet and Romeo for the Bard-founded, Stratford-upon-Avon based theater troupe in the late 1980s released his resignation letter on June 21st, posting it on the website of Culture Unstained, a U.K.-based activist group that “aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture.” The group is part of a larger activist network called the “Art Not Oil Coalition,” which lobbies English cultural institutions to cut ties with fossil fuel companies through a variety of means.
The ethical questions of sponsorship are always dicey, especially if the entity offering the money is actively engaged in unethical behavior. But the ethics of celebrity activism can also be questionable, especially in 2019, when celebrity virtue signaling and bad-faith politics is to be expected. That is why Rylance’s statement is so refreshing, it stands out as well argued and researched, framing the resignation as an act of professional accountability even while Rylance’s association with the RSC was largely symbolic.
As Rylance notes in his letter, he had raised concerns about BP’s relationship with the RSC since it began in 2012, joining others in publicly denouncing the partnership. In the U.K., the fossil fuel industry’s sponsorship of cultural institutions has been coming under increased scrutiny from activists in recent years. Most recently museums in the U.S. and U.K. were moved to reject gifts from the Sackler family due to their company’s role in the current opioid epidemic.
In many ways, BP presents the appropriate balance of scheming, insidiousness, and seductiveness required of any good Shakespeare villain. We could imagine Rylance as Hamlet, convinced that BP, who we could think of as Hamlet’s evil uncle Claudius, is an evil, murderous force that is corrupting the RSC, which we could think of as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. One could imagine Rylance’s statement of resignation in the scene where Hamlet confronts his mother with all his misgivings about her marriage to his uncle: “Such an act that blurs the grace and blush of modesty,” a “thought-sick” act that “calls virtue a hypocrite.” Then again, all three characters end up dead in Hamlet, so maybe it’s a bad analogy.
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