A man walks into a Palestinian refugee camp….
This may not be the most typical extended set-up for a joke, but it’s the one chosen by Mark Thomas, as the activist comedian stages his experience of setting up a stand-up comedy workshop in Jenin.
There’s a thin absurdity in the prospect of establishing art in a refugee camp, throwing performance at people who have an awful lot else on their plates, and making a punchline out of the frontline. At first, this manifests itself as black humour, but beyond this superficial clash of the significant and the trivial, Showtime from the Frontline humanises the news stories through the exchanging and welding of artistic practises. It’s a simple, and potentially saccharine concept – but is delivered with just the right amount of self-deprecating friction and mickey-taking to remain honourable to its goals.
An Englishman, two Palestinian men, and …
Thomas is joined by Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, two Palestinian attendees of The Freedom Theatre workshop. While less-than familiar with the one man and his microphone setup – the lonely format that propelled Thomas to fame in the 80s and 90s – Alhayjaa and Shehada, for starters, are clearly experienced comedic performers. Both bring backgrounds in clowning, mimicry and physical comedy and, as co-founders of the exquisitely-named Palestinian Laughter Liberation, clearly know a little about the power of performance and humour in conflict zones.
And all three performers share a certain urgent energy. In his performance, Thomas bears that familiar, spontaneous, impassioned swagger of the man in the pub who mollifies you with his conviction. That being said, unless you came into the theatre by accident – took the wrong turning, maybe, on the way to your weekly UKIP meeting – Thomas is not going to persuade you to believe anything new, and will be the first one to admit it. Nevertheless, he pulls out the full spectrum of rhetorical body language – thumbs and forefingers gravitating regularly to assertive ‘o’s. Later, holding his palms up, he is at once encouraging and restraining, humble and just bulging with bravado.
What did the soldier say to the comedian?
Just as there is lightness to be found amongst the ferocity of life on the West Bank, there is a true significance in the apparent flippancy of humour. As the show comes to its conclusion, Thomas meditates on how laughter can be loaded: “The soldiers are furious because we do not look frightened of them.”
In their workshop, Alhayjaa and Shehada are encouraged to bring together the unexpected – a clash culture that inspires Alhayjaa’s excellent turn as an apologetic Israeli soldier, the chosen improvisation on this night. Thomas seasons the script with the rude opposition of the mundane, the horrific and the romantic, reminiscing about “the twilight sound of the gunfire” . Through these imaginatively deadpan worlds, built on unlikely foundations, the comedians re-script division and conflict.
The narrative arch of putting on a performance against the odds is nothing new, but between all its twisting of expectations, there’s a biting, original buoyancy to Showtime. This show’s unique conception story lends itself so well to the anecdotal rhythm of stand up comedy, and the production fully mines its unusual context for all of its vivid, humorous potential. As Thomas says, “All jokes are stories. They have a beginning, a middle – and the wrong ending.” From the unlikely initial setup to the artful concluding punchline, the optimistic brilliance of this piece lies in its relentless tendency towards contortion, and its disarming ability to surprise.
Showtime from the Frontline is on until 21 April 2018 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Click here for more details.