Comedy from the front line

Photo: S Ullathorne

Showtime from the Frontline by Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada

I’m sorry to be writing this review so close to the end of the run of this remarkable show as my message is that if you live near London, try to grab one of the remaining tickets for the last week of performance at Stratford East– you won’t be disappointed, writes Terry Conway. Otherwise you will have to wait until the DVD we have been promised appears.

I’ve not missed a Mark Thomas gig for quite a few years – I love his irreverent mix of political commitment which incisively points the finger at power and commitment – while at the same time sending up many of the worst traits of the left. Being given the occasion to laugh at yourselves, really laugh with your whole body is a cathartic experience, especially in the company of trusted friends.

But this evening goes beyond those delights. Here, for the first time in 33 years, Mark is not alone. He is joined on the stage by Alaa Shehada and Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, from the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine. The three are not only equal performers on the night, but patently all responsible for the marvelous material with all its colours of joy – and of outrage – that they weave before us.

I didn’t read any reviews of the show before I went, but even if I had, they wouldn’t have prepared me for some of the best moments of the night – moments in which there were more Palestinians performing than Faisal and Alaa.

I was already feeling emotional when the three started telling us about the Jenin Freedom Theatre, and of founder Juliano Mer Khamis, assassinated on April 4 2011. It’s a significant story for anyone interested in the relationship between culture and resistance – something I definitely share with those who put this piece together.

It had a particular resonance for me watching in Stratford East. I shared a house with two members of the Khamis family in Longsight Manchester for a year in the 1970s. I’ve stayed in touch intermittently with Chris Khamis – and was talking on line with him very recently about his cousin Juliano. So choking moments already.

And when Faisal, on stage in front of me, explained the video shots we were watching of scenes in Jenin after Juliano’s murder, and told us about his cousin, a boy of nine I think speaking to us about how he felt from the screen, that conversation was also replaying at the same time. And then when Faisal went on to explain that his cousin had been killed by the Israelis before his tenth birthday , I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member with a tear in my eye.

The idea for this show started when Mark and his team visited the Jenin Freedom Theatre in 2013 for the unlikely challenge of running a comedy club. The two Jenin artists that came to London this year are only two of the performers that worked with Mark then. We see Alaa and Faisal take on the personae of some of their colleagues, sharing both their personalities and their slightly faltering initial material with us. It’s both touching and insightful. But this is only the first act of this twist of the weave, because later we are treated to seeing these other characters first hand as they perform their material, more polished and with greater confidence on the massive video stage on the screen. There is talent here that definitely deserves a massive audience.

Another aspect of the show worth mentioning is its irreverence towards the Palestinian Authority. The first time such a line was spun from the stage there was an audible intake of breath from some of those in the audience, visibly dotted with keffiyehs and Palestine solidarity badges. It’s an approach that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Mark Thomas’ approach. But the fact that Alaa and Faisal articulated this approach makes it much more challenging to anyone who might be tempted to dismiss it.

In the after show question and answer session, the cast spoke, among other things, about the different responses of audiences in the different places they had performed. They pointed to the particular sense of recognition with which they were received in Belfast – and the ironical comments about an English man telling them about the experience of occupation.

In many ways the message I derived from this sums up what I liked so much about the evening. The struggle for freedom for Palestine is not, as both British and Israeli politicians try to persuade us, about the deeply flawed politicians of either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. It’s the struggle of ordinary Palestinians, fighting to live three dimensional lives in the brutalizing, dehumanizing and often deadly context of Israeli occupation. Faisal underlined this point in the after show discussion saying that for Palestinians, resistance is not a question but an automatic response.

In this the seventieth anniversary of the Nakba, Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada  remind us of these realities in a way that led me to both tears and laughter.

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1 Comment on Comedy from the front line

  1. Bob Whitehead // 15th April 2018 at 5:37 pm // Reply

    Was lucky to be one of those that managed to make it through a Blirmingham blizzard to see this performance. Not to be missed, or to be forgotten.

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