The demand ‘When are you going to sort out Palestine, Mark?’ greets Mark Thomas, he says, whenever he visits his local newsagent. It’s unlikely Thomas’ new show will achieve that. Thomas, the comedian and activist, knows this.
He may have notoriously walked the Israeli Wall in an effort to understand that conflict but he’s now returned to his local streets, ready to fight the injustices closer to home. ‘I’m 50 and don’t give a fuck anymore,’ he declares. And indeed his performance, which places dissent at its heart, is one of undulating passion and resolve. When he isn’t appropriating the stage as a teenage punk-rocker, shouting down the microphone, dancing and singing, he’s fondly recalling his local community and his sister who runs the food bank. But has he abandoned the more significant causes that he usually champions with this new focus? What does he deem worthy enough to rail against?
Thomas’ goal is to complete 100 minor acts of dissent over the course of a year. They will all be presented in a grand finale in May 2014. If he fails he will, ‘magnanimously’, donate £1000 to UKIP. With up to 100 acts to call upon, Thomas has the potential structure and variety to lead his audience through a rich and diverse narrative. He fluctuates from the prosaic and rather minor irritants, often fodder for the stand-up comic, to amusing and even worrying infractions of our civil liberties: junk mail, stickers on books, CCTV in toilets, and the Public Order Act, which restricts protest in our streets, all feature.
Thomas’ acts of protest are petty, significant, crude and hilarious. He objected to Apple’s ethically dubious practice of registering for tax purposes in Ireland by celebrating the company’s ‘Irishness’ in the Apple Store in Regent Street. In a more serious vein, he reveals the results of a data protection request that he made for information that the police hold about him. And indeed the police seem to have been carefully recording his ‘rabble-rousing’ ways for a long time.
Thomas intersperses these stories of dissent with some funny asides. He mentions the gay rights campaign which created a dictionary definition of the American anti-gay marriage politician Rick Santorum (‘the frothy mixture of lube and faecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex’) and invites his audience to do something similar for Nigel Farage, which should be pronounced, he is at pains to emphasise, FarEDGE not Faraaage. His jokes may jar, but as Thomas gleefully declares, ‘you didn’t come here expecting satire did you?’
He then turns his abuse to the artiness of Warwick Arts Centre and its audience, perhaps showing that his aim is to challenge pretention and privilege even if that involves undermining his own performance.
But our brains love lists. They make us feel as though we are going to be educated in digestible, classified chunks. And Mark Thomas’ 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, buys into this trait too, screaming out ‘Look! Here’s 100 ways that you can protest!’ He invites the audience to join him in irreverently confronting the status quo. As he says, we are all born dissenting. Yet, despite the power of the list, I left feeling slightly underwhelmed. To commit 100 acts is an ambitious undertaking as is trying to recount them in one performance. This may have taken its toll because, for me, the performance became a perfunctory roll call at times. Some acts felt so minor that I wondered whether they had any value. Several seemed to be aimed at unnecessarily annoying people, which may be funny but are hardly subversive.Throwing his dog’s faeces over the fence into the adjoining Tesco car-park, putting spoilers inside books and sending a Barbie-driving VW toy past the Saudi embassy are some examples. These acts aren’t going to fix Palestine. And nor are they going to fix any other of the serious matters Thomas mentions: the police presence on university campuses, the large number of people visiting food banks or our problematic military presence abroad.
In the end, I left the show confused and not quite sold on the message that we should dissent against all of life’s petty irritants. However, I was inspired by the reminder that perhaps the absurdities of power should be challenged without mercy. After all, as Thomas discovered, it doesn’t take much to assume a position of authority. Just put on a reflective jacket labelled ‘Shoplifter Instructor’ take three trainee shoplifters to note down the location of every CCTV in a department store and see how long it takes for someone to stop you. It was ten minutes for Thomas.
Mark Thomas’ calls to action:
- Volunteer to drive bankers to the airport – blindness will not be a disqualifier http://www.wewilldrivethemtotheairport.co.uk/
- Use the Bastard TradeMark stickers that he provides at his shows (and I’m sure there are some online) to highlight unethical corporations or products
- Take stickers from books and put them on other, inappropriate, books – for example, place the ‘signed by the author’ stickers on the bible
- Photograph a police officer – it’s your right to
Title photo by saaste