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The National Theatre should clean up its act and ditch Shell home

Chris WilkinsonPosted by Chris Wilkinson: Thursday 8 January 2009 11.27 GMT

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Fuel pumps at a Shell petrol station near Liverpool   

Fuel pumps at a Shell petrol station. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Last Sunday, as I entered the National Theatre to catch the final performance of Oedipus, a flyer was shoved into my hand. Usually these leaflets are simply plugging a show. Not this one. It was from an organisation called Rising Tide, protesting against the production’s sponsorship by Shell. Using the slogan “Art not oil“, Rising Tide argues that companies such as Shell and BP are using advertising and cultural sponsorship as fig leaves for the appallingly destructive effects that their activities have on the environment.

Rising Tide’s aim is to encourage major arts venues such as the National and the Southbank Centre to refuse money from these companies. As part of its campaign, it has created an online gallery of artistic responses, satirising art’s dependence on Big Oil.

You might think it insane, in the current climate, to suggest that a theatre should refuse to take money from anyone. After all, it is not just the recession that poses a severe risk to the financial health of our arts organisations. One only has to think back to the debacle surrounding Arts Council England’s funding decisions last year to see how precarious the financial situation can be for any arts organisation. One of the National’s great strengths is its ability to produce work on a grand scale. It can mount shows that would be too risky, artistically, for the commercial theatre, but which most other venues simply do not have the space nor resources for.

However, the threat that global climate change poses to human survival is so great that it is hard to think of anything that should take precedence over combating it. By accepting the sponsorship of a major polluter, the National is providing Shell with a significant public endorsement. The theatre is aware of the controversy surrounding this sponsorship deal but defends its position, saying: “We do not believe that refusing to accept sponsorship from oil companies is a constructive approach; it’s hypocritical (we all use energy) and diverts attention from the real challenge, which is to pursue environmental sustainability and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

There are problems with this argument. It’s true that we all use energy, but this fact can hardly be used to prevent us protesting about how that energy is produced. After all, we need an army to defend us, but that should not stop us criticising the behaviour of arms manufacturers. The National is absolutely right to say that we should pursue environmental sustainability and a reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels, but only last August, the Advertising Standards Authority reprimanded Shell for making misleading claims about some of its operations being sustainable.

Imagine, instead, if the National and other high-profile and prestigious organisations decided not to renew their sponsorship deals with Shell. If they came out and said that they would not be associated with such a destructive corporation, then the negative publicity might force Shell to truly clean up its act. If any theatre can afford to do this, surely it is the National. Not only does it receive a very healthy amount of public money, it also has a plethora of other private and corporate donors who provide support. Given that Oedipus sold out weeks in advance and featured a major international film star, the National could have found any number of other companies willing to step into Shell’s shoes.

All of this is particularly unfortunate given the National’s otherwise excellent green policy. It has committed to cutting its electricity and gas consumption by 20% by the end of this year. But so long as the Shell sponsorship remains, there will be a lurid yellow stain on the theatre’s green credentials.


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