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Flashmob protest sets sights on British Museum

A group of actors are planning to stage a 'Shakespearian flashmob' this weekend in protest of BP arts sponsorship

The British Museum is this weekend set to be the target of a new protest over its sponsorship by BP.

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company are a group of actors who have already staged eight pop-up protests around the country in response to the oil companies arts sponsorship programme. On Sunday, they plan to stage a flashmob with over 100 participants in the British Museum’s Great Hall, in opposition to BP sponsorship of its ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition.

Believing that our cultural heritage is tarnished by association with the oil multinational, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company have coined the slogan ‘BP or not BP?’ to front their campaign, which has so far involved invading the stage at several Royal Shakespeare Company theatre productions.

This weekend's flashmob, entitled ‘Out Damn Logo’ will constitute their ‘grand finale’. A recent press release explains their belief that BP is a ‘destructive’ company and defends their actions on the basis that it 'should not be allowed to use our cultural institutions to greenwash its image'.

BP is a significant name in British cultural sponsorship. Last year, they pledged £10 million in support of several of the countries’ most prestigious arts institutions - the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Tate Britain, as well as sponsorship of the London Olympics and Cultural Olympiad.

However, despite these financial rewards, controversy has plagued these sponsorship deals since their inception. Regular protests from several campaign groups have been ignited in response to oil company support for art centres throughout the UK. The Tate galleries have also come under huge criticism for their lucrative sponsorship deal with Shell, including protests which involved hanging dead fish from dozens of black helium balloons in the Turbine hall and re-creating fake oil spills at the Tate Summer Party.

The argument that BP is an insufficiently ethical company gained added credence yesterday when BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter and accepted a record $4.5 billion fine to resolve criminal charges relating to their 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Tate’s ethics policy specifically states that ‘Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when…. funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct'. Whether the recent BP settlement consistutes a breach of this policy is debateable, however it certainly casts shadows over the Tate's choice of fundraising partner.

Nonetheless, supporters of corporate arts sponsorship have for years been keenly pressing the argument that free museums are one of the highlights of the UK’s cultural landscape, and without sponsorship deals, they cease to be a viable financial possibility. Public funding for arts institutions has suffered extensively from government cuts in recent years, and alternate options for museum funding are not looking promising.

High-profile supporters of oil company sponsorship have included Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic who has previously stated ‘the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived and massively self-indulgent...  The involvement of BP obviously makes it easier for galleries like the Tate to work at the world-class level they do and remain free. Either museums are going to survive and be first-rate in these challenging times, or they are going to be reduced to sad shells of themselves.’

Richard Howlett of the Reclaim Shakespeare company responded:

“We reject this assertion. We believe it is possible to have a thriving arts sector that is not being used by hugely destructive oil companies for their own gain. The RSC is one of the one of the UK's richest theatre companies. Just £2.3m of their £32m turnover is from sponsorship and donations.”

So far neither the British Museum nor the Tate have given any indication that they are considering ceasing their sponsorship deals. A spokesperson from the British Museum press office recently told the Independent:

"We are standing firm on our statement on BP sponsorship. We are grateful to BP for their long term commitment to the Museum, which allows us to share the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience, but we appreciate the Reclaim Shakespeare Company's right to protest and there is no ill feeling there."

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis