Interview: comedian Mark Thomas on Showtime From the Frontline, his new show about teaching stand-up in the West Bank

Mark Thomas with Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada
Mark Thomas with Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada
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“I remember someone saying ‘if you hear any gunfire, more than likely it’s a celebration of something. But as a rule of thumb, don’t go towards it,’” chuckles Mark Thomas, recalling his first visit to the West Bank.

It was in 2009, whilst hiking the length of the Israeli wall, that he first encountered the Jenin Freedom Theatre in the city’s long-standing refugee camp, razed to the ground by the Israeli army just seven years before. Resolving to establish a comedy club there, last year he set up a course teaching stand-up, “the freest form of self-expression, where you’re talking directly to an audience about your life, thoughts and feelings”. Arriving with Sam Beale, a lecturer in stand-up at Middlesex University, the pair found themselves marvelling at the sanguine attitude they acquired towards the conflict.

“There we were, in our flat in the camp, cooking tea and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix when we heard shots being fired,” he recalls. “And we looked at one another and said, ‘that’s probably for a prisoner being released isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, that’s prisoner gunfire’. It just sort of melded into the background.”

Showtime from the Frontline, his tale of establishing the club, retains that gallows humour. “Palestinian audiences have the best justification for being late,” he explains. “Whether there was a checkpoint or not, who knows? But it’s a great excuse...” He’s also sharing his stage with two graduates from the course, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, whose leave to enter the UK was far from guaranteed.

In the 33rd year of his career, Thomas’ work continues to move away from the one-man-and-a-mic, “Thatcherite” model of stand-up. Recent shows like Bravo Figaro, The Red Shed and A Show that Gambles on the Future have incorporated recorded interviews, audience interaction and even improvisation as the 54-year-old plots to add “more voices” to his comedy, creating a kind of communal folk theatre. But “I’m an egotist, so sharing the applause is a terrible thing,” he affects to grumble. Directed once again by Joe Douglas, until recently associate artistic director of Dundee Rep, Showtime “has a really tight structure but there’s a lot of improvisation and slights in it” the comedian enthuses. “We really wind each other up and there’s a competitive spirit to try and catch each other out.”

“When was the last time you saw a show that was uplifting about Palestine?” he asks. “We don’t shrink from what’s going on there. But it’s full of joy and love. People will have to adjust their headsets with this. They’re refugees but guess what? One of them has an iPhone. Amidst all the fun and frolicking, this is a rich show that will challenge how people think of Palestine, the lives people lead there and the options they have.”

Nevertheless, the show has its sober moments. The production reflects upon the 2011 assassination of the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, who taught Abu Alhayjaa and encouraged Thomas in his wall rambling. “It’s a shadow on the show,” says Thomas. “But this is a city under occupation. We went into rehearsals the other day to find out an army incursion into Jenin had killed three people, people that Faisal and Alaa knew of.”

Pressures comes from outside and within. “The [theatre’s] relationship with the camp is always in flux,” Thomas says. “Some people think men and women shouldn’t mix on stage, that boys and girls shouldn’t mix at school or that performing isn’t good. Plenty support it but the relationship isn’t fixed, it’s volatile.

“[Jenin] is fertile and has incredible farmland but employment has really been affected by the wall. Lots of people travel south in the West Bank to try and pick up employment from the richer cities. So it’s become a city that folds in on itself – very socially and religiously conservative.

“But it was also the heart of the Second Intifada. And when the Israelis came in and smashed everything, wiped it out in 13 days, they rebuilt. So it’s conservative and rebellious. There’s a paradox there and this show challenges expectations. I called it a liberation version of Fame because it’s about them wanting to become performers, where they come from. It’s actually a punk rock version of Fame, it’s great.”

To his frustration, some of his students created provocative routines on sex and gender equality in the workshops but were reluctant to perform them. “For me, the stage is the place where you’re most easily forgiven” he says. “Where you can be or do whatever you want, it’s the place I feel happiest, safest. And I can say what I wish. But for many people in Palestine, the stage doesn’t exist in that way, it’s a public dimension where you’re judged. The values you put on stage, there’s much more examination of the public and the private.”

Palestinian comedians currently perform in Israel, but Thomas is cautiously optimistic that a younger generation might establish themselves in the West Bank too. Discussions are underway about Showtime playing in Jenin too, featuring some of the students who weren’t able to leave the territory.

True to form, the industrious Thomas has already begun work on his next project, a state of the National Health Service diagnosis that he’s bringing to the Traverse Theatre for the Edinburgh Fringe.

In Our NHS @ 70, he’ll be scrutinising the health lottery, how income dictates life expectancy and the quality of end of life care. “There’s a slim chance that I’ll see 85 just as the NHS turns 100 years old,” he ventures. “And I’d like to know what I’ll see. Because we’re going to have to reverse our whole idea of health in this country. People think the NHS can save them but it can only do so much in terms of medical treatment because health differentials are completely income and status-related. And the statistics are f***ing outrageous. You’ve got people in Grenfell, living around the tower who are predicted to live seven less years than the people living on the other side of the road.”

Present at a 1997 public meeting to discuss the Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary private finance initiative - which The Scotsman exposed in 2010 would cost the NHS £1.26billion by 2028, with the hospital remaining the property of private firm Consort – Thomas recalls thinking “this is insanity, a tawdry mortgage on the future”.

The collapse of outsourcing construction giant Carillion means that such PFI deals are in the spotlight again. “And coming home to roost,” Thomas reckons. “It was [Conservative chancellor Norman] Lamont that launched PFI but it was [Tony] Blair and [Peter] Mandelson that let it fly, gave it life.

“So I hope to see the end of them. Personally, I think we’re genuinely heading towards socialism, a small, fairly moderate version of it. We’re going to kick the likes of [Richard] Branson off the railways and out of the health service and we’re going to put money into the NHS. We’re going to shut down Jersey and tax some of these offshore f***ers.

“I think Brexit might actually turn out to be beneficial because it’ll give governments the wiggle room to re-nationalise. The whole culture of privatisation, outsourcing, low tax, low wage, low f***ing job security, I think people have had enough. It’s exciting isn’t it?” n

Showtime From The Frontline is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-17 February, and at Glasgow Comedy Festival in March, www.traverse.co.uk;

www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com