Though the Wolf Hall actor last appeared on stage in an RSC production in 1989, his very public resignation as a longstanding “associate artist” is, at the least, a public relations blow to the prestigious company. In a long open resignation letter, Rylance writes, “I feel I must resign as I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesmen or any company or individual who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor do I believe would William Shakespeare.”
In the sponsorship deal opposed by Rylance, BP subsidizes low-priced student tickets.
In his public letter, Rylance says he has attempted to address the matter with RSC management but to little result. “We must be ‘phased and pragmatic’ was the response I received,” the actor writes. “Meanwhile the RSC will continue pushing BP’s brand onto a generation of young people who have – in huge numbers through the ongoing school climate strikes – told adults they need to step up to the climate crisis now, acknowledge we are in an unprecedented global emergency, and act accordingly. Surely the RSC wants to be on the side of the world-changing kids, not the world-killing companies?”
Rylance’s resignation, first reported in UK’s The Guardian, follows what the publication describes as “a series of high-profile protests by artists and campaigners against BP and other global oil corporations at UK cultural institutions ranging from the National Portrait Gallery to the Royal Opera House and the British Museum.”
Writes Rylance, “The RSC could turn this situation on its head and give young people much more value than a cheap £5 ticket. They could give them the support of Shakespeare in their stand against our addiction to energy dealers who would willingly destroy us for a quick quid.”
In statements to The Guardian, RSC artistic director Gregory Doran and executive director Catherine Mallyon said they were “saddened” by Rylance’s decision but that corporate sponsorship is “an important part” of the RSC’s funding. “We recognize the importance of a robust and engaged debate in taking these decisions, especially in the light of the acknowledged environment and climate emergency,” they said. “It’s one of the many ways that help us to establish lifetime enthusiasts for Shakespeare and live theatre and applies to all of our productions whether in Stratford, London or on tour around the UK.”
BP declined The Guardian‘s request for comment on Rylance’s decision, but noted in a statement, “We’ve been supporting the arts in the UK for 50 years and over that time around 50 million people have enjoyed BP-supported activities and programs. On climate our position is very clear. We recognize the world is on an unsustainable path, more needs to be done to fix that and the world needs to move to net zero carbon emissions in the decades to come. In addressing the climate challenge facing all of us, it is critical that everyone plays their part: individuals, governments and companies such as BP. The answer will come through coming together, building understanding and collaborating to find real solutions rather than through further polarization and exacerbating divisions.”
Rylance ends his letter by encouraging other RSC associates to “express themselves.”
“I am resigning to lend strength to the voices within the RSC who want to be progressive, and to encourage my fellow associates to express themselves too,” he writes. “The children know the truth … In the face of addiction, tough love is the only path. It’s time for an artistic intervention.”
Rylance played Hamlet and Romeo in RSC productions in 1989. He won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. His most recent Broadway appearance was in 2017’s Farinelli and the King, and he’s won three Tony Awards (Twelfth Night, 2014; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, 2011; Boeing Boeing, 2008).