Most stand-up comedy these days is based on the lives of the people standing behind the microphone, albeit reshaped to varying degrees to ensure their material matches the “rule of three” defining all the best jokes in the world – essentially a beginning, a middle and the wrong ending. Mark Thomas’s latest show, while obviously rooted in his own political standup, nevertheless furthers his move towards theatre – with at times quite devastating emotional intensity.
Self-aware, self-mocking and ready to highlight their own absurdities
Thomas’s new show – like previous works Bravo Figaro!, Cuckooed, and The Red Shed, all available on DVD – is based on his own experiences, and use a variety of theatrical techniques to make this more than just a stand-up routine. The focus is his time setting up and running a comedy workshop in the Palestinian city of Jenin, which is such a ridiculous idea on so many levels. It’s typical of the man to raise a metaphorical finger to Power – whether it’s that of the Israeli Government or the Palestinian authorities – but this is perhaps his most affecting production yet.
In part, this is because Thomas shares the stage with two of the workshops’ participants, Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehad from the Jenin Freedom Theatre. He is careful to give them plenty of time on stage, whether playing themselves, other aspiring comedians or any of the people Thomas met in his time in Palestine. But it’s also because he is willing to push for an audience silence rarely found in either theatre or comedy – an absolute, hold-your-breath silence after he informs us that the young men we’ve just been told about, or seen on screen, are now dead.
Thomas, of course, is expert at drawing us back to laughter, though there are some aspects of the show that may seem a bid odd; not least us applauding filmed excerpts from the comedy show at the end of the workshops. It makes a point none the less – how difficult it is for most Palestinians to travel outside their borders. Also, it is recognition of arguably a fundamental, political idea: that Palestinians can be funny – whether it’s about the generalities of life or the specifics of living under military occupation – all while dispelling a few patronising preconceptions along the way.
Self-aware, self-mocking and ready to highlight their own absurdities, Thomas, Abudalheja and Shehad are engaging, intelligent and passionate performers. Like any comedy review, going into too much detail about their routines is dangerous – not so much a case of “spoilers” as plain theft. So, suffice to say, this is a show that undoubtedly informs, educates and entertains – and proof positive how, in some situations, comedy is the strongest defence any of us have.