Thursday, 26 July 2018

Check Up Dramaturgy: Mark Thomas @ Edfringe 2018

Check Up: Our NHS at 70
Traverse 1 - The Traverse, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED

Mark is 54, the NHS is 70, and the UK national average life expectancy is 84. If Mark makes it to 84, the NHS will be 100. What will they both look like?

Based on a series of interviews with leading experts in and on the NHS, residencies in hospitals and surgeries, and with theatre director Nicolas Kent, Mark uses his own demise to explore the state we’re in; what's going wrong in our NHS, how it can go right, and what the future might hold for us all.

First of all, this is one of those interviews where I am speaking to someone who is off the telly (and I am old enough to remember your shows. I used to watch them, even. Now, I don't have a television but I do hear you on the radio, so you count as a celebrity, a bit like a member of the Royal Family). How do you find it when people, perhaps especially critics or journalists, come to you 'knowing you' in those terms?

I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I probably spent 6 of those years doing telly, finishing in 2003. I think that critic’s jobs are to get a handle on what  they’re doing. I haven’t been hanging around doing fuck all in the intervening years since stopping telly  so I would suggest that the critics brush up on what I’ve been doing cause, guess what, people change and people’s works changes. Hopefully they change, else we’re producing the same old shit year after year. If critics approach me only through the telly work, then they’re being a bit lazy.

I think this leads me to another
question about you: you are - forgive me if I am mislabeling you - both a theatre maker and a stand-up comedian. Within your latest show, how do you integrate - or otherwise - these two careers and styles?

I haven’t been a stand-up since 2003. If anyone comes to see my show expecting to see stand-up – don’t. There are plenty of great stand ups that you can go and see – I would recommend Angela Barnes, Bridget Christy, Shazia Mirza and anything that Kitson does. 

The work I do now is a mix of theatre, journalism,  storytelling,  a dash of Situationalisim and a squeeze, a nod and wink to the Fluxus art movement. But essentially what I do is… I go off, I do things, I come back and tell the story. Its theatre. It’s my own weird version of theatre. Trust me, some bits will be funny, but the most important thing is the story.

Having seen your work at the Traverse in the past, I have found myself in a difficult position. Although I am on the left politically, I have a difficult relationship with socialism. The emphasis on capital as the primary corruption of human experience has led to the occlusion of other oppression - I am thinking of gender in particular - in the sense that these other alienations can wait until after the revolution. 

And in my own activism, I have found a lack of personal integrity in certain Marxist individuals (again, this comes down to feminism, Marxist men who talk the talk but use their position of authority to manipulate women, but also a willingness to sacrifice other people's well-being for the cause). Now, that is the same as blaming Jesus for Mike Pence, so I am not entirely happy with that... anyway... I don't find this problem comes across in your work. Your ability to keep a sense of fun - despite being notoriously humourless, I have laughed with you - your recognition of the personal and politic and your clever use of direct action is, frankly, brilliant and politically attractive. 

You are uncompromising in your position, though: how important is it to you that you work doesn't become a rhetorical exercise in preaching to the converted - and how do you do it?

I think the notion that any audience is sitting there in total agreement with me is balderdash, just as the notion that I have the magic answer to everything is balderdash too. I hold opinions that I’m going to disagree with in 3 minutes time. 

The great thing about theatre is that people get to see things from other people’s viewpoint and, when they do that, they get to experience empathy. What you want to do is explore an idea and explore a story so that people see things with fresh eyes. And if you’re challenging to yourself, then the story will be challenging to the audience.

I also have a political problem with theatre: it has been the domain of the bourgeois for about a century - ever since melodrama was displaced by naturalism and then modernity. Its current attempts to be inclusive are all too often liberal box-ticking, with a side order of appropriation. Do you find that there are any pressures working on your productions that need to be negotiated, or, is it possible to convey a radical message within a conservative medium, and again, how do you approach this? (I think this is a variation of a question I have asked in my dramaturgy database: is theatre still a good place for public discussion of ideas?)

There are plenty of spaces that don’t fit into that bourgeois concept of theatre. Go to somewhere like the Theatre Royal Stratford East: the audience is a proper London audience, a mix of working class and middle class and a mix of race and gender. It properly reflects London. Whats thrilling is to do stories that reach out and appeal to people there and connect to people. 

If you write stories about middle class experience, then the middle class will come to it. If you write stories about working class experience, then working class people will co me to it. Look at somewhere like the West Yorkshire Playhouse which has studiously commissioned working class stories about the north and, low and behold, the audience starts to change. Look at theatre groups like Red Ladder that often perform outside. 

Their production of Damned United was an incredible success at the WYP, as well as their track record for performing outside traditional venues. I think what you have to do is try and do stories that are important to people and work with organisations. The important thing is the story. Telling the story and getting the right story is going to be the way that you reach out from that rather bourgeois cultural bubble.

And my questions are long enough to be answers, so just one more! It's a broad thing. The world is not doing so well at the moment (for me, it is Trump, Islamophobia, the failure to recognition privilege and yeah, Brexit) and while we might disagree on specific issues, I imagine that we both have a general sense of the presence of something unpleasant and even sinister. 

But both of us are, in our own ways, responding to that through art. What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career who is called to make art, but also feels a desire to take a more direct approach to helping others?

When it comes to creativity and creating art I think the best advice is the classic first aiders advice. If you’re in an accident, make sure you are ok before trying to help anyone else.

Since last August, Mark toured his 2017 sell-out Fringe show A Show That Gambles on the Future before devising and touring a whole other brand new show, Showtime From the Frontline, in which he, alongside two Palestinian comics, re-enacted their time setting up a comedy club in Jenin. The show opened to rave reviews and sell-out audiences and gave Mark just enough time to turn his attention back to the UK and to his next project, our very own National Health Service.

TIMES & DATES: Sat 4th @ 9:15pm / Sun 5th, Sat 11th, Sat 18th @ 10am / Tues 7th, Sun 12th, Tues 14th, Sun 19th, Tues 21st @ 1pm
Weds 8th, Weds 15th, Weds 22nd @ 4pm / Thurs 9th, Thurs 16th, Thurs 23rd, Sat 25th @ 7pm
Fri 10th, Fri 17th, Fri 24th, Sun 26th @ 10pm
PRICES: Sat 4th @ £15 (£9) / Sun 5th-Sun 26th @ £21.50 (£16.50)
TICKETS: 0131 228 1404 /

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