Fine, boycott the Bard – but if BP doesn't pay for the arts, who will?

If oil be the fuel for us, drill on? (sorry, Shakespeare); Why the arts minister's Playstation should be confiscated and Martha Wainwright retreads the family warpath
  • @davidlister1

One of the best cultural protests there has ever been occurred some years ago outside a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of a play by John Arden. Audience members were picketed as they tried to enter the theatre by a man urging them not to see the play. The man was John Arden. He was peeved at the way it had been directed. As protests go, that was classy, I think.

But a pretty good one happened this week, also coincidentally at the RSC. This time, just before a Stratford-upon-Avon performance of Twelfth Night, some protesters, who disliked the fact that the RSC was accepting sponsorship money from BP, stormed the stage and delivered some cod-Shakespeare speeches. Some lines were not all bad: "What country, friends, is this? Where the words of our most prized poet/ Can be bought to beautify a patron/ So unnatural as British Petroleum?" And some were all bad: "If oil be the fuel for us, drill on." Anyway the audience gave them a cheer. Theatre audiences will always cheer, seeing it rather as offering comfort at an audition. The protesters should remember that, rather than thinking they won the argument in record time.

It's not the first time that there have been protests at BP's sponsorship of the arts; the Tate has suffered demonstrations and impromptu performances too. But, however chequered BP's record on environmental concerns might be, the argument for what one might call an ethical cultural policy is not as clear as those protesters might think.

Firstly, why stop at BP? The banks haven't been that ethical in recent times. But look at the websites of such diverse arts institutions as the City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra and London's Donmar Theatre and they both proclaim the sponsorship of Barclays. Will protesters storm the stage at the Donmar? They will have to be very cultured protesters as the Donmar is currently staging Racine, and they will need to make their protests in Alexandrine verse, if they want to follow up their RSC moment in similar style.

They will need to make their protests in Alexandrine verse, if they want to follow up their RSC moment in similar style.

Whiter-than-white businesses are hard to find, but the arts can only survive with generous helpings of corporate cash. Force them to turn their backs on that, and watch ticket prices rise even higher and more arts companies go to the wall. That's not terribly ethical either. Quite simply, though many don't like to admit it, it's businesses at the sharp end of capitalism that are enabling the arts to thrive. It's all well and good storming the stage, but we need there to be a stage to storm.

The arts minister should know his PlayStation

The arts minister Ed Vaizey said in an interview with this paper that he wanted to have a games console in his office, but the "powers that be" rejected it as "inappropriate." He explained: "I was encouraged not to in case it looked frivolous. But I think I will renew my campaign. I have a television so why can't I have a games console?" I think I'm with the powers that be on this one. The TV in a minister's office is, I always thought, to keep up with the news on one or more of the news channels. So a games console is hardly an equivalent. I don't think Ed should continue with his campaign for a console. It might convince a Prime Minister, already said to be sceptical about the continued need for a separate Culture Department, that arts ministers don't have enough to do.

Martha attacks! Be afraid... be very afraid

The soon-to-be-released Martha Wainwright album is going to be one of the albums of the year. I have heard it, and it is really excellent. She is a great talent, as one might expect from such a musical family – it can just be a bit dangerous to be related to her as her songs are unsparing. In her debut album she penned an ode to her father, the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, which was tenderly titled 'Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole'. On the new album her husband gets the treatment with such lines as "my marriage is failing", "your lying and cheating", and "I like make-up sex, it's the only kind I ever get." Martha's a brilliant talent. Just don't get too close.