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Comedian Mark Thomas Set up a Comedy Club in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

26 February 18 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Lesley Martin

A comedian goes to a Palestinian refugee camp and sets up a comedy club. Just another adventure in the life of political satirist Mark Thomas…

Tell us about this comedy club in Palestine…
It was in Jenin, a poor and agricultural place north of the West Bank; very socially conservative but also fiercely full of fighting spirit against the occupation. I first went there in 2009 and saw that they had a theatre in the refugee camp. I thought this was the most wonderful thing ever and decided we had to do a comedy workshop with them. One great thing about stand-up is that you can react very quickly and articulate things and feelings as they happen, whereas in theatre, it can take years to get something ready. That style suits their changing environment well.~

You’ve got two guys – Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada – over from that workshop on the UK tour with you…
Yeah. We had twelve people doing the course, and some of them had never performed before in their life. If I had it my way I would have brought them all over. One guy came over from Bethlehem, spent eight hours on a bus trip to do the course, and slept in the rehearsal room. I wish we could bring him over but there are all sorts of problems because of where he lives. This is also quite a big task to finance; I had to fundraise for the trip and the project. In the end we selected these two to represent the group.

What’s the game plan?
We’re engaging them to come and write a show with me about the process of putting on a comedy night in a refugee camp. And that’s the story really. It’s a sharing of cultural experiences.

This year marks thirty years since your first TV appearance. How has comedy changed in the UK in those decades?
There are a lot more comics. When I started you knew everyone; it was kind of like going to a funeral. Now there’s a career structure and universities running stand-up courses. When I started, you would pay about a fiver to get into any gig and now there are people charging £70 and filling 10,000 seats in an arena. So it’s hugely popular and it’s grown as a business because of that popularity.

A year and a half on, what are your thoughts on Brexit?
Essentially, this is a postcolonial, midlife crisis. There are so many questions: What is it to be British? What does it mean for Britishness? How do we count ourselves? Should we be part of Europe? What about Northern Ireland? Are there going to be borders? It’s an existential crisis affecting a whole country.    

Are you a fan of Jeremy Corbyn?
I love him. If he was in the room with me right now, I’d grab his head with both my hands and give him a big hug. I think under him we’d actually have the chance of socialism; it would be a mild socialism, but we might actually get the chance to do things we should have been doing for years.

What other good causes should we be supporting in 2018?
I think Repeal the 8th (Abortion Rights Campaign) in Ireland is really interesting, I think the equal marriage and pro-choice debates in Northern Ireland are really exciting. Across the UK I think we should really be looking at workers’ rights and minimum wage. We’ve also really got to get out there with the NHS and get stuck in. Those are the big battle grounds for all of us.

Showtime From The Frontline by Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada is on at the Lakeside Arts Centre on Monday 26 and Tuesday 27 February 2018. Tickets are £17.

Mark Thomas website

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