Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


Defiantly anti Bob-Geldofisation! - An interview with Mark Thomas

The comedian and political activist Mark Thomas set up a stand up workshop in a refugee camp in Jenin, Palestine.

When London Calling heard about a show set around a comedy club in a refugee camp we knew we had to talk to him: Mark Thomas, the comedian with a career of over 30 years in pulling political stunts and creatively chipping away at the capitalist system. The holder of a Guinness World Record for the most political demonstrations carried out in 24 hours is one of the UK’s most recognised performers and influential activists, famous for his trade mark mix of mischief and dedication.

London Calling: When I first read about “Showtime from the Frontline” I thought, wow, what an idea! How did you even come up with this?
Mark Thomas: A few years ago I decided to walk the length of Israel's wall in the West Bank, a massive barrier covered in watchtowers, wire and soldiers. This is when I found the Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian community-based theatre and cultural centre in the Jenin Refugee Camp. They invited me to stay there in a flat for visiting companies. I found it absolutely stunning! I found it a place full of defiance and creativity, sadness and hope and all of these things. It was thrilling! I loved it and I always wanted to go back. The question with this was: Can we do it? It took 3 years to organise and negotiate. The idea came up through a series of coincidences and how we ended up doing it was everybody just said yeah, ok that sounds interesting. Everyone just said yes!
LC: You set up a stand up comedy club in the refugee camp. Stand up is such a British thing, do they have something like that?
MT: Culturally, in Palestine, there are places which are communal places but they are not normally designed for performance or not known for stand up performance. There are people who’ve done it in Ramallah, there’s a stand up from Nablus, there are Palestinian Americans who are stand ups but stand up culture is a relatively new thing in Palestine. Lots of people watch stand up though, because of YouTube, because of the internet. People may not have a culture that exists on the ground but there certainly is knowledge of it.
LC: You taught them the tricks of the trade, but let them develop their own material?
MT: We designed courses, which were about getting the students to learn various techniques or look at the work in different ways. It’s not about telling people what to say. It doesn’t work if you give them material and tell them to do it. It’s all about giving people the tools with which to express themselves and when we leave, those techniques stay in Jenin. That was really important to us. But what is exciting is that we are hearing original voices, true voices and that is thrilling for me. I have no interest telling people what to say.

Photo: Lesley Martin

LC: We imagine that refugees don’t have a lot to laugh about but what was the material that emerged, what makes them laugh?
MT: What you have is a whole range of people performing. Some people talked about their relationship with their family, some people talked about their love of Korean pop music, some people took the piss out of men, some people mocked their upbringing, some people mocked the Israelis, some people mocked the Palestinian authority. They talked about being born into a refugee camp, the range of experiences is incredible.
LC: And there is a resistance in creativity and laughing.
MT: It’s about celebrating freedom of expression. For them, it was about all sorts of things. You can’t say it’s one thing. One woman got up and talked about the hijab, one woman got up in a hijab and talked about her love of Korean pop music. Both things are liberating for those people, both things reflect their lives. I think stand up does empower people because if you stand up and talk about your experience and your life, you stake out an expression of self. Freedom of expression is so, so important. Without it we cease to be individuals.  And so, going against the prevalent norms is really exciting. Talking about Korean pop music, some people will say, oh you should be talking about the struggle; some people will say that women shouldn’t be on stage. Their individual freedom of expression is the radical bit in this.
LC: What does it mean to bring the show to Theatre Royal Stratford now?
MT: we have brought over two of the performers from the workshop and we have created a show. It’s not a recreation of the stand up show we did in the camp, we are doing a play about putting on the stand up show. I like to say we’ve managed to ‘smuggle’ a play on stage. We use quite a radical form, both the director Joe Douglas and I are heavily influenced by theatre groups like 7:84 who were incredibly radical, who did plays that use popular art forms to convey complex histories. They would perform in bus stations, workers canteens and things like that. Both of us are very influenced by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal and the workshop there, the idea that you can create a play out of something unexpected. So we made a play out of stand up and story telling and reportage and scenes and characters in which we try to deconstruct what the comedy is as well as show what these lives are like. What we want is their stories coming through. We hate the victimization of refugees and we are fearsome and defiant about that. There’s a new wave of theatre coming through, shows which are defiantly anti-victim in their portrayal of refugees. I’m sick and tired of this Bob-Geldofisation, it’s destructive and I think its racist. To assume what we need is a charity single and then we give them money. That means we cast them as a group of victims who can be saved by a group of pop stars and I’m fucking sick of that.
Showtime from the Frontline is at Theatre Royal Stratford from 10 - 21 April.