Earlier in the decade, stand-up and activist Mark Thomas performed a show called Walking the Wall – a tale of his “extreme rambling” excursion along the West Bank’s barrier. In his latest tour, Showtime From the Frontline, he recounted his return to the region for a very different type of visit.
Wonderfully aided by Alaa Shehada and Faisal Abualheja, the show detailed his time spent teaching a comedy workshop at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Palestinian refugee camp – his co-performers were among the students, and their clowning and acting skills were brought to the forefront here, essaying the different characters among the student cohort and illustrating their experiences.
Although primarily known for his political stunts and activism, Thomas is an excellent storyteller – the aforementioned Walking the Wall and more recent shows like The Red Shed, Bravo Figaro and Cuckoo have displayed a more nuanced approach to narrative, combining well-crafted stories with his typically incisive comedic voice. Similarly, Showtime From the Frontline was an account which was beautifully told and brilliantly performed, with Faisal and Alaa undoubtedly being the real stars of the show.
Often bracing, powerful and with more than a hint of black humour, largely due to the reality of life in Jenin and of military occupation, it nevertheless transcended any bleakness mostly because of the enthusiasm and efforts of the students, celebrated here for their dedication and talents. It was inspirational and aspirational – a testament to the immense power of comedy and art, and the importance of giving access to art for those who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice, or a way to express themselves creatively.
This was a rare and singular treat – unlike Faisal and Alaa, many of the students are unable to leave Jenin, but one can only look forward to seeing what they (and Mark Thomas too) go on to do next.