Dodging cultural and literal bullets, Israeli incursions and religion, Mark Thomas and his team set out to run a comedy club and put on two nights in the Palestinian city of Jenin. They found, for lots of reasons, that it is not so simple to celebrate freedom of speech in a place with so little freedom.
Jenin refugee camp, a stronghold for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade during the Second Intifada, is not a place synonymous with laughs. But it is also home to the Jenin Freedom Theatre and to people with a wealth of stories to tell.
Mark tells this story alongside Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, two performers, actors and now aspiring comics.
Mark Thomas: Showtime From the Frontline is at the Tron Theatre 21st – 24th March as part of the Whyte & Mackay Glasgow International Comedy Festival.
We called Mark for a chat about the inspiration behind his latest show.
Tell us about your first visit to the West Bank, what was that first day like?
Man that was wild. The first time I went over was to do a recce, see if we can actually do the walking wall project. I was working with an Israeli fixer, she’s wonderful. And I really love her. I fly into Tel Aviv, get met at the airport, get a cab from the airport into Jerusalem. There’s a hotel I’m staying in East Jerusalem which is the Palestinian sector.
I remember thinking, this is really amazing because it was around these hotels that it’s quite obvious that the doors are being kicked in at some point. You were right there. So I wake up on that first morning, and I get a text from my fixer guy. There’s a car outside, please go and get in it. I went and found this taxi driver and he drove me out towards Bethlehem and the wall. We go past this massive cantilevered part of the wall. There’s a massive Jeep behind it flashing us. And the driver looks in the mirror and says, “ah this is the man who’s going to meet you”. And I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing”. Where are you taking me?
The guy in the Jeep is an Israeli lawyer, he then drives me around the West Bank, drives me around the settlements saying, “this bit’s illegal under Israeli law. This bit’s illegal under international law.”
I then get taken to a human rights organisation, a Jewish human rights organisation, they gave me a really amazing clear picture of what is happening. And when we finish at Betsalin.
I get taken over to meet the UN human rights advisor, Ray Dalton who is just amazing. And at the end of it I’m slightly blown away by the whole thing. And then Ray says he’ll take me for dinner.
We go to Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, it is a Palestinian area, where the settlers are kicking, pushing families out of their houses and taking them over house by house.
It’s really incredible. There’s a family on the street and the police were arresting them for making a mess of the street. I’m devastated by this.
Ray Dalton, the UN guy, says just come eat dinner. And he leads me into this restaurant which isn’t far from these people who have been kicked out of their home. We sit down and I’m just trying to overcome the culture shock, when Cherie Blair walks in and sits next to me. I’m like, “how can this get any weirder?”
So do I remember my first day? Yes.
Do you see this new show as a companion piece to you Walking the Wall tour?
Absolutely. It’s a show that’s been a long time coming. I’ve always wanted to do something else, with Palestinians. And then four years ago when I was doing a book reading tour in the West Bank I went up to watch the rehearsals at the Jenin Freedom Theatre which is a theatre in a refugee camp. And amidst all the doom and gloom of all the young people I was talking to, there was positivity and resistance. I just thought, I love this. I love this so much. I want to be part of this and I want to bring something to the table. That’s where the idea to run the comedy courses started.
In fact it started later on when I was with Ray Dobson, the human rights guy who I have now known for nine years. Now, I’d regard him as a friend.
Returning to the subject of the West Bank, then, is that to do with some of the personal relationships you have made there?
Yeah. I think it is. Also you can’t fail but be affected by it. It’s so racist it’s unbelievable. This really is an apartheid system, you have two people living under two different laws. If you’re Israeli and you live in Israel you’ve got civil rights, you’ve got civil law, you’ve got right of trial by jury, the presentation of evidence, all that stuff.
If you’re a Palestinian on the West Bank you have got martial law, no jury, no presentation of evidence, no rights, no appeal. You can be picked up and put in jail without charge and held indefinitely in solitary confinement. For the crime of being a Palestinian. We know someone who’s a writer who was held for three months. Never got told why, and then released.
We know someone that was a dancer who was jailed for a year. When you see that injustice – I don’t know anyone who’s not been left like a dog with a bone because this is so unbelievable.
When you realised there was a theatre in the refugee camp, and aspects of normal life prevailed in the stark circumstances, what made you think the comedy workshops would be a good idea?
Basically I thought, it’s all I’ve got to give. I can’t build someone a house. I can’t do any of that shit. All I’ve got are the tools of my trade, and if they told me what they wanted to say I could help put a shape on it. That’s the gig.
Is there such a thing as an international language of comedy, things people will laugh at or the way something funny is structured?
I don’t necessarily think you could identify an international language in comedy, but the interesting thing for me comes when people talk about their experiences. When people tell stories about their lives you see the differences and the similarities, doesn’t matter where they are from. That’s where the strength lies.
So, were the classes about gaining the confidence to do stand-up?
It’s not about the confidence it’s about techniques. I was with my mate Dr. Stanfield who’s a doctor in comedy, she teaches this course in Middlesex Uni. I’ve known her for years, she is an old friend of mine. She’s one of those friends you can just hang about with and be rude and silly and stupid, because you’ve known each other so long.
We devised a course, I looked at all the various attributes of comedy or we’d look at how you write, or we’d look at things that make you angry or we’d look at silliness. We’d look at all sorts of different ways to approach it.
Each day that we did it, something new and brilliant and wonderful would be thrown up. These are skills, these actual skills that we can transfer to other people. Part of our thing was, we negotiated for three years to be able to do it. Part of our thing was we have to have women on the course, and they have to be teachers from the Jenin Freedom Theatre inside the comedy course, so when we leave, all that stuff stays.
Was it always the intention to turn the experience into a show?
There were two very very clear objectives. And each were separate. So we had to run a comedy course that absolutely existed in its own right, one that had benefits. Then there was the next stage, was trying to take people from the course to come and perform with me.
So they were always linked but separate, they were two different entities. Just getting the first one done was fairly challenging. Then the way that I work is just to go “okay, once you’ve got the story then all you have to do is get into a room and work out how you’re gonna chat”.
Is this one different from your other shows then?
There’s other performers on stage for a start. I think it carries on in the tradition of my previous shows, Trespass and Red Shed which are essentially plays. This is another piece of theatre.
We’ve cleverly disguised theatre! It’s a play if you look closely enough, I just don’t mention it because we’ll frighten people.
We want people coming to see the show, who don’t normally don’t come to plays. Obviously they’re not the only ones, but we want people who go, “oh it’s comedy let’s go look”. We’re gonna surprise them because it’s really great.
This is a show that’s built on stand-up and storytelling and reportage and sketches and scenes.
How are you all getting on, now you are on the road?
We’re all adjusting. It’s a big learning thing for all of us. We all like each other and we’re all really enjoying it. I feel that this for me is the nearest I’m going to get to being in the Sex Pistols. This is rock and roll, this is punk rock.
I’m adoring every minute of it. We do something which we think is really new, that we think is genuinely radical and unexpected and we’re in a band running up and down the country, what could be better?
Come and see it because I promise you it’s fucking great and you won’t have seen anything like it.
Buy tickets here.