Showtime from the Frontline | Preview
Stewart Robson interviews comedian Mark Thomas, ahead of the show at the MAC Belfast, on 06 March ’18.
Photography: Lesley Martin
Not many people can say they’ve walked along the West Bank. Even fewer can say they’ve attempted to start a comedy club in the West Bank. Perhaps only Mark Thomas can say that he’s taking that experience on tour.
The South London comedian’s inspiration for his new production, Showtime from the Frontline, derives from his visit to a refugee camp in Palestine eight years ago. Out of it comes a story of creative and cultural seclusion with the want to break free from the shackles of a prohibitive regime.
Thomas’ own story began while growing up in London where he says he was enveloped in a wave of new cultural inspirations that were sweeping across the UK. The hedonistic 1980s also had a real impact.
“My first inspirations were Dave Allen and watching Steptoe and Son. Although somebody actually asked me the other day who were my comedic heroes were and I said why would I be so limited?
“The genius Victoria Wood. Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright. The Clash, the Anarcho-Punks. Tommy Trinder, the first comic I ever saw live. Iggy Pop too.
“Inspiration was everywhere.”
“This was something new and fun and radical and naughty and rebellious. It was about people wanting to do it because they wanted to do it. It was about the thrill of it all.”
Thomas adds that during that period, there was such an influx of social change and creativity that he didn’t quite realise the importance of what was going on around him.
“You often don’t realise how good things actually are when you’re in the middle of them although I think I’ve got better at that, the older I’ve got.
“It was an incredible time.
“I really do regard myself as lucky. I remember phoning up places saying I’m a performer, I’d like to perform and they’d asked me, have you did this before? I said, yeah, so they gave me five minutes. I’d 19 gigs in the book by the end of the year and this was in October!”
Since then Thomas’ career has encompassed radio and television appearances as well as being a political activist. His visit to the Middle East in 2010 helped shape the show that he’s bringing to Belfast next month.
“I walked the wall in Gaza eight years ago. That’s when I met the Jenin Freedom Theatre. I loved their idea.
“What they say is, we’re human beings with desires and aspirations to create and to exist beyond the narrow definitions of how you, (the government), try to frame us.
“I’ve gone back year after year. In 2014, I was on a book reading tour in the West Bank and at that time everybody I met was really depressed, everything just felt stuck. People who years ago felt like they could do something were just worn out.
“Yet I went to see the theatre’s rehearsal of the Siege of Jenin. It was the most exciting form of positive, creative energy. That’s when I thought, what could I bring to the table?”
With his team, Thomas set up theatre workshops focusing on technique rather than content.
“This show is really about peoples’ lives under the occupation, not the occupation itself which I think is really important. They’re expressing things they didn’t think they could express.
“For three weeks of rehearsals, you dig the story out. They’re always the most nerve-wracking three weeks because you stay up all night and discover things out. You even think, are we going to pull this one off this time?”
He works with an entourage made up of six nationalities to which Thomas feels extremely proud to have behind him.
“Our team is made up of Scots, Irish, Lebanese, Germans and Palestinians and South London,” to which he proudly adds, ‘for flavour.’
This will be the comic’s second time to Belfast within the space of a few months. He performed at the Black Box in December and has a bold affection for the city and its culture. Oh, and its bread.
“I love coming to Belfast. I remember being captivated by a visit to the MAC and its art space, while also trying to beg a bit of the treacle loaf off someone.
“At first, someone asked me if I’d tried the Guinness and treacle loaf and I thought, oh here we go, thinking it was some tourist thing.
“The chef ended up keeping a whole loaf for me.”
Judging by what Thomas has to say about the show and its cast, you’ll be begging for more of it, just as much as he was for Irish bread.
“Come and see the show, you won’t have seen anything like it,” Thomas says as we wrap up our conversation.
A true gentleman creating change in artistic spaces. Even spaces where you didn’t think it was possible.
Showtime from the Frontline comes to the MAC on 06 March ’18. Tickets can be bought from the box office or by visiting themaclive.com
New CultureHUB TV to be broadcast: Tuesday 20 February • Programme Trailer (below)
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