Mark Thomas flips the attitude about Palestine with his comedy show
What is the protocol for trying not to stare at your favourite comedian?
Stare at your shoes and you look like you’re not paying attention but stare at them the whole time, unblinking like a fish, and you’re likely to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the auditorium.
How much eye contact can you safely maintain with them, whilst they’re doing a show, without being creepy and weird?
I ask for a friend.
I’ve been a fan of Mark Thomas’ particular brand of comedy activism since I first saw The Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s and his stand-up was brilliant when I saw him perform live at the Glastonbury festival over 10 years ago.
But tonight, sat four rows from the front on a press night in the Courtyard Theatre at West Yorkshire Playhouse, was my first chance to see him up close and personal.
Which is ironic really because — as was made abundantly clear in a running gag throughout the three-man show — Mark insists to his sidekicks that it’s not about him: It’s all about you. It’s not about me. Well, it’s not just about me. More than you might think though, actually. Maybe 50 / 50.
Showtime from the Frontline is about Mark’s attempt to set up a comedy club in Palestine in 2017, where he ran a series of comedy workshops in a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, which culminated in two nights live stand-up comedy performance by Palestinian students.
Some of the students had already trained at the Jenin Freedom Theatre school and others had never performed before.
Two of them have come with the show to the UK, up-and-coming actor comedians Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada, to play the parts of themselves and their classmates as Mark Thomas recounts his tale.
The students were encouraged to tell stories about their family and upbringing, what life is like in the refugee camp, and to find humour in the world around them.
From run-ins with the Palestinian authorities, to life under Israeli occupation, or even how activists just don’t want to see a refugee with an iPhone.
Mark tells them that the secret of comedy is you can talk about anything so long as you flip the attitude — so long as you don’t say what people expect you to say in the way that they expect you to say it.
If you want to talk about death, for instance, be sexy.
But in this case it’s the audience’s understanding of the Palestine situation that gets flipped — it’s not a conflict, it’s a military occupation — and your empathy grows as you learn more about the lives of the students.
Mark maintains that all jokes are stories: they have a beginning, a middle, and the wrong ending.
And in a funny sort of way the show has the shape of a joke — it has a beginning, a middle, and an off-kilter ending.
The middle really comes alive as you see the students in action.
Faisal and Alaa perform the sets they did at the comedy club and you also get to see video clips of the other students — who up until now had been played by the comedy duo — doing the best bits from their sets.
Faisal and Alaa are an endearing double act, with a good rapport between them, but they both have their own distinct voices too. Faisal’s comedy is political, whereas Alaa is more personal.
And for the punchline Mark nails his colours to the mast with a brilliant diatribe about why comedy is such a threat to the powers that be: “They hate it when we laugh at them.”
Showtime from the Frontline is a paean to free speech, the power of people to challenge oppression, and the power of laughter to bring people together.
And to paraphrase Mark’s closing words: even if all comedy ever did was annoy dictators, that’s good enough for me.