Mark Thomas’ smile is grim as he crosses the hotel lobby to meet me; he’s aching for his ‘medication’. After he orders his double-espresso in the café his whole body slumps with relief and he turns to find us a booth. Two tables of skinny messy-haired Englishmen leap to their feet and almost genuflect, he makes an avuncular ‘as you were’ gesture and mutters kindly about their various shows at the Festival; they blush and wriggle with pleasure.
Thomas is largely unknown in Australia but in the United Kingdom he’s had seven popular left-wing comedy series on BBC4, multiple one-man shows and written three successful books. He’s the only comic to receive a human rights award from Amnesty International and is variously described as a writer, television presenter, journalist, all-round-dissident, campaigning-comedian and activist. The Guardian calls him ‘John Pilger with laughs’. When confronted by this description he grins. ‘I’m really just a professional annoyance’.
Forty-nine years old, dark-haired, stocky and energetic, Thomas chooses his words carefully. Legal threats, police surveillance and ongoing scrutiny are common experiences for him—not usually associated with the life of a regular comic. He’s militant, picks fights and generally wins.
His show was on at Melbourne’s Trades Hall. ‘I walked into the foyer and saw the honour board to people voting against conscription and knew I was in the right place’, he says.
Extreme Rambling is highly political; a combination of bravura performance, laughter and commentary that appeals to people seeking something other than stand-up comics humiliating hecklers or sharing their latest epiphany. ‘I’m drawn to unfashionable causes’, Thomas says. ‘I wanted to experience the wall itself, observe what was happening and report on it.’ He narrows his eyes and leans forward. ‘And I also like a good walk.’
He’s told this story to over 60,000 people worldwide and uses comedy as a weapon of mass education. He provides his audience with a potent slapstick moment then, under the cover of hilarity, slips in stark data like an unseen assassin shoving a knife between their ribs. His show evidences this process. He explains to his audience he was drawn to walk the barrier before it became a tourist trap with t-shirts and beer mats. We laugh and imagine hot dog stands and pickpockets and he adds that 156 Israelis died in suicide bomber attacks over one month and their countries’ reprisal was killing 1300 Palestinian civilians with white phosphorous in an event described by a participant ‘like burning ants with a magnifying glass’. We took an appreciable in-breath of shock and Thomas moved to his next topic. His method: a happy ramble then a disturbing image. ‘The real shock and awe’, he explains later.
Combining ‘entertainment’ and political message is the recipe he has employed in his television shows. He describes inciting the public to challenge the UK Serious Organised Crime and Police Act—legislation that prevented demonstration in the Parliament Square precinct—by making formal applications for single-person demonstrations. ‘It tied the police force in bureaucratic knots, exposed the law’s unwieldiness and resulted in a surreal scene of competing protests.’ He chuckles. ‘There’s something profoundly pleasurable to see free speech exercised by someone with a sign calling for a Free Palestine next to someone demanding Free Chocolate.’
His more formal activities include presenting his research into arms dealing to a House of Commons committee who could make the information public through Parliamentary Privilege. ‘The BBC decided the material was too “hot” to broadcast’, he explains. ‘My producers were under huge legal pressure by significant persons in my findings and didn’t have the resources to manage the threat’. He shrugs in resignation.
I read out a list of his other ‘battles’ and he agrees he’s exposed Coca Cola’s anti-union violence and environmental destruction in his book Belching Out The Devil, revealed tax clauses that assisted the wealthy, and developed a community manifesto to promote democratic participation in the United Kingdom. His most renowned work challenged legislative loopholes that assisted arms trading and his book As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela brought torture and semi-sanctioned arms dealing into public awareness. He unconsciously brushes the tabletop with his fingertips as I check the items, not in a phony ‘I‘m a modest guy’ action, more like clearing the space for other discussions. He’s clearly hardworking and effective.
Jacob Grech, a local anti–arms trading activist who has been in contact with Thomas since 1989, describes him as a committed advocate whose strength is engaging those who wouldn’t normally be interested in serious causes. ‘People come to his show because of the good reviews and learn about the illegal occupation. When they hear about Israel again they’ll be more interested; they’ve been primed’, he explains.
Two English backpackers at Extreme Rambling said they’d been affected by his work, were boycotting Nestlé and supported his stand against tax havens. ‘He gives you information but doesn’t tell you what to do’, offered one. ‘And he’s bloody funny’, said the other.
Thomas smiles when he hears these comments and says he hopes they enjoyed the show. His response seems genuine. He doesn’t woo his audience or subject me to gratuitous performance; he presents ideas, you take them or not.
Why does Thomas use art to incite activism? ‘Art has to say something!’ he explains. ‘Once it’s done religion and love it must make social commentary.’ He warms to the subject. ‘Art and politics arrived in my life at the same time; I was a child of punk rock. Crass, my favourite band, promoted direct action and were anti-racism and anti-war; their album covers said more about politics and people than anything else I could find. Punk was the expression of frustration and a response to it’. He takes a breath. ‘I ended up in a Theatre College in the middle of Yorkshire during the miners’ strikes where my student group witnessed our neighbours literally starving and the army waging war against them. We produced shows in the labour clubs to keep people’s spirits up’. He stops suddenly, the unexpected silence creates a place to imagine the scene, then he laughs. ‘We weren’t very good but our intentions were pure. My creative life was developed as we talked with the workers and their families.’
But why comedy? Thomas is thoughtful; he taps the tabletop with his forefinger.
“Comedy provides an opportunity to say things no other art form can; it’s impossible to be closed-minded or angry when you’re laughing. You can approach the most taboo subjects by introducing one idea with comedy then another and another until people are listening to things they wouldn’t normally hear or tolerate. It creates an opportunity for insight and connection I like to exploit.”
His comedy also attracts a broad and responsive audience to left-wing politics, most of whom would not read or attend a lecture about the current situation in Israel.
In Extreme Rambling, he introduces us to characters from both sides of the conflict, including Nava, the cool-headed Israeli fixer who gets Thomas out of jams; Itamar ex-soldier and Monty Python fan, likely to break into ‘We are the knights who say Ni’ at moments of high tension; the unnamed mime artist who helps Thomas survive a tear gas attack; Arieh King, an Israeli estate agent who wants the wall to extend to the biblical boundary of the Euphrates River; Wael, a Palestinian founder of ex-combatants for peace who says warfare should occur only between armed personnel and calls suicide bombers anti-Islamic terrorists; and Janet, a prim member of the Christian Peacemaker Team who escorts Palestinian children to school to protect them from violence.
Thomas describes talking to settlers who enjoy the fresh air and quiet of their low cost accommodation, hearing of Palestinians queuing for hours in the middle of the night to work on the other side of the barrier and soldiers confiscating food at the checkpoints, attending the Bil’in weekly anti-occupation protest and tear-gassing, being the intended victim of a stoning and getting arrested twice and almost jailed. He’s a naive, and sometimes cranky, self-deprecating adventurer who doesn’t tell us what to think and never elevates himself, or any of his characters, beyond the role of participants in a strange episode of history.
He’s on stage for two gruelling acts, switches between commentary and characterisation, uses minimal props to support his story and is able to break his rapid stride to handle late-comers with aplomb.
He keeps his greatest admiration for those engaged in non-violent protest and is visibly affected as he tells the audience about their courage and hardships. One example he gives is of Zohar, an ex-Israeli soldier and refugee rights activist who hands out war-crime leaflets to soldiers about to arrest him. He also tells stories of impoverished families and individuals, engaged in long-term organised struggle, who push their hospitality onto him and his team.
As he returns to the stage for an encore, I become aware we have witnessed an unexpected form of non-violent protest of Thomas’ own making; a well-crafted, funny commentary about Israel and Palestine that includes significant descriptions of greed, hubris and racism and invites us to become involved in ongoing activism.
As I walk out of the auditorium, I’m aware Grech is right; Thomas’ so-called comedy show challenges me to stay in contact with the current conflict and respond.
Note: Thomas intends to return to the International Melbourne Comedy festival. He is currently touring Bravo Figaro in the United Kingdom, a show about his father, a hard man and self-employed builder who fell in love with opera. He has published a book version of his performance: Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun. (Edbury Press, 2012).