IN his new show, at the Traverse, Mark Thomas focuses on the slow decline of his father and the power of music to bridge generations
MARK Thomas is not a man you associate with silence. He is a man you associate with shouting injustice from rooftops and stages, with torrents of eloquent earthiness, and with bringing down the bad guys in a hail of bullets made of jokes.
But today, among the pug walkers and buggy-toting yummy mummies sipping skinny ’cinos at the Clapham Common bandstand, there is enough silent space between his words to organise a demo against the iniquity of allowing a company with the human rights record of Coca-Cola to drown the Olympics in a tidal wave of red branding. Words come slowly down a long tunnel of thought and when they arrive these words are, again and again, “ … interesting”, “ … difficult”, “… personal”, “… subconscious”
Thomas’s father was a working-class Thatcherite, self-employed and self-reliant. The photo on his son’s smartphone is of a serious bloke with a serious beard, looking the epitome of the lay preacher he became. Thomas’s relationship with him was, he says “often fraught and difficult”.
His father was, he says, “a real old-school biblical patriarch. A f***er”. Now, at 73, he has progressive supranuclear palsy, a foul, degenerative disease and, as Thomas says, “a cruel situation to be in, where your muscles go and there’s dementia and there’s memory loss and the whole personality changes. There’s blindness … he can’t swallow … he could end up being fed through a peg directly into his stomach … all that kind of stuff.”
Thomas describes the particular pain of having a parent with dementia as “losing them in advance” and says, mildly, “That prolonged period of loss is … very … odd.”
Somewhere along the way from leaving school with not a single qualification, Thomas Sr developed a great love for opera and his “theme tune” became Figaro’s aria from The Barber of Seville. Meanwhile Thomas Jr was up to his safety pins in punk. Now his father’s disease has changed both of them.
“When we started to lose him I started to listen to opera … just subconsciously started to go around listening to it and it wasn’t till later that I went – ‘Oh, I’m trying to reach my dad.’ There was a time when we could take him out and I would take him to the opera. ENO do this brilliant disability access thing where you and a carer can get into a really good box – and it’s 25 quid each and it is just great.”
When Thomas was asked to come up with Radio 4’s inaugural Inheritance Tracks on Saturday Live he unhesitatingly chose Figaro’s aria as “one of those things that I inherited and have accidentally passed on to my children”.
Unlikely as it seems, “because of that I was approached by Mike Figgis who was curating a festival at the Royal Opera House. I said, ‘I want the Royal Opera House to lend me opera singers.’ And they did. And we went and put a concert on in my dad’s living room. We told him two days in advance – we had to have this rolling campaign where we’d tell him. But he was really wide awake during the show. Really, genuinely loving it.” A pause. “And that is what the show is about.” A pause. “And trying to unpick why I did it.”
Listening to Thomas recount the development of Bravo Figaro!, the show he is bringing to the Traverse Theatre next week before taking it on tour, it would seem he has saved himself a small fortune in therapists’ bills en route to Edinburgh.
“All the stuff that we do comes from our families,” he says emphatically. “They are our first encounters with love and power and loss. That is the template we work with in life. All of the shows I do are about voicing things that are not voiced often or ignored and that is completely about my childhood – of going ‘I will be heard.’ All of these things tie up.”
The show includes recorded interviews with the family and the stage is littered with personal items. “There’s a toy my dad made me when I was one – this wooden ark – and I gave it to my son and my daughter … so it is very … personal … and I said I want to bring it in … the ark … and put some dinosaurs round it. And it must have been subconscious, because at one point I looked at it and I just thought, ‘F***ing hell that is my childhood really’ … the ark is the religious bit … the dinosaurs are education … evolution … and then I suddenly went, ‘There’s six of them and an ark, oh f*** it’s the family holiday on the canal!’” And I do tell a story in the show about that family holiday.”
He is asked repeatedly if this show is a departure from the political work for which he is known. “How can telling a story about my dad who is a working-class lad who leaves school with no qualifications and discovers a love of opera – how can that not be political in some way?” he demands. Apart from which, he is making sure the show is also a platform for raising awareness of this egregiously neglected disease.
“The show is very personal, but it is also the story that everyone has. Which is losing your parents. It is all about family dynamics and about how the changes that happened with me were to do with how I saw my dad and how I related to him. There was a stage when we were really standoffish and when he was ill we got closer and I think the relationship automatically changes because you end up doing things for your parents that they are now incapable of doing.”
Does it help being a parent himself? “You certainly have no fear of bodily fluids.” He replies. “And there is a kind of symmetry to the world that your parents start by wiping your arse and it looks like we’re finishing by wiping theirs. And that’s OK and we have to be grown up and deal with it.”
There is another pause. “It is … interesting and sometimes you are never … as … good as you’d like to be. When my son was born I did the classic Parent Prayer, ‘Let my children bury me.’ Because the consequences of it not being the case are just too unutterably horrible. So this is the natural way. And there is a funny old thing that you just realise, ‘Ooh I’ve done another bit of growing up … I didn’t expect that to happen.’”
Doing previews for the show has been revelatory for him. “The weird thing is after every gig people come up in tears and tell me very personal stories. I am used to having arguments at the end of gigs rather than having these moments which are really very intense and very personal and about sharing. Which I have found profoundly touching.” There is one more pause. “But there are plenty of laughs in it, ” he says, “plenty of laughs.”
• Mark Thomas: Bravo Figaro! is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-26 August.
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