MARK THOMAS | INTERVIEW
Political satirist and comedian Mark Thomas speaks with Emily Garside about his new tour the Red Shed, the miners’ strike, and the EU.
Your shows, both stand up and the more theatrical, are all very distinct, how do you go about creating a show?
Each show is based on actual events, but rather than just retell what has happened I try and take actions that shape the outcome of the story. Confused? OK.
Here’s an example: when the government passed a law about protesting, I organised a demonstration and realised that I could show how inept the law was and challenge it at the same time by following the exact letter of the law and pushing it to the limits. So, the story of each entanglement with the police and the law becomes the story.
In the case of the Red Shed, which is a Labour Club in Wakefield, I started by talking to friends and comrades and interviewing them about their involvement in the club. As we were celebrating the Red Shed’s 50th birthday I set myself a series of quests and tasks, one of which was to see if a memory of the miners’ strike was true.
On the miners’ march back to work, I remembered seeing children in a playground singing Solidarity Forever at the miners as they walked defeated through the streets. I wanted to try and find the school and the children to see if that memory is true. So, I went off with friends to search for the village and the school and the children and the show is me telling the story of that.
What is the Red Shed?
The Red Shed is ostensibly a Labour Club and is literally a wooden single storey 47-foot-long socialist shed. It’s in Wakefield and is where I went as a young student activist; it became an incredibly important part of me, a place where politically I came of age during the miners’ strike and where I first performed in public. It’s a place I’ve always gone back to and still have friends and comrades there. It is in many ways a talisman for me.
Why did you decide to build this latest show around that particular memory?
I wanted to do it partly because the Shed was 50 years old in September 2016 and it seemed too good an anniversary to miss. Partly because working class stories seemed to be marginalised in theatre, and indeed more importantly in the world at large. I love the idea of collective memory becoming an investigative tool to find the truth AND because of the notion that in a ‘post factual world’ the dominant story wins the argument no matter how many experts and logic is thrown at it.
I loved hanging out with friends and talking to people I was on nodding terms with and finding their amazing stories. Everyone in the club has done something remarkable. The chap who collects pots and always turns up to help move chairs told me about his involvement in the 1972 builders’ strike. Amazing. And silly of me not to expect this to be the case.
The Red Shed follows on from Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed, which are more theatrical works than your previous stand-up. How has transitioning into that mode of working been?
I like your choice of words. Transitioning. You make it sound rather deliciously Ru Paulish.
Since 2003 I have been talking stories on stage rather than stand up. 2003 was the Dambusters show which was all about a three-year campaign against a Turkish Dam in the Kurdish area. The SOCPA show, or Walking the Wall, was the story of walking the length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank. I love trying to find new ways of telling stories and creating theatrical events. It has all seemed a very natural progression for me.
If anything, it is the audience who occasionally need to catch up. My tour manager used to whisper the phrase, “don’t tell them it’s theatre” as a joke but there is an element of truth in that. I haven’t done stand up for years now and it still comes as a shock to some people.
How have people reacted to the politics of the show so far?
Very positively on the whole, one Tory complained in Southampton saying the show was too dramatic… but a braying yahoo moaning that it wasn’t what he ordered is nothing to worry about. If anything, I regard performing to people like him as missionary work.
Interestingly though, it’s places like Leeds, Glasgow and Liverpool where the show really exploded. A woman came up after a Glasgow show to say “I’m a miner’s daughter and you just told my story”. Perfect. Best review ever.
2016 has been an eventful year politically (to say the least) what are your thoughts on where we’ve ended up at the end of the year?
Firstly, let me say I have a financial interest in this question, as I bet my wife that the UK would vote to leave the EU, £100 so not too shabby a bet, she actually reneged on the bet claiming that as we had returned to the 1950s she would pay for the debt in housework. Which never happened.
How did we get here? Where do you start? Globalisation? Neo Liberalism? The 2008 banking crisis had a large part to play in this. The system almost collapsed, people lost their homes, their businesses, the banks sold worthless shit to pension funds and investors and no one ends up in jail. Fred from RBS loses his knighthood and keeps his pension, but for everyone else austerity cuts public services, people lose jobs and wages go down all the while Fred potters around the putting green moaning about how he’s a scapegoat.
The EU has actively created austerity in Greece and Spain, the ECB stifled democratically elected policy. The EU has Maastricht which enshrines privatisation into law. So, it’s not as if the EU has been a beacon of hope for many people.
The show mixes class and culture, have the two always been entwined in your life?
Yes, ever since my dad started to listen to opera on the building site much to the chagrin and bewilderment of the owners of the places he worked at.
What advice would you give to audience members who want to start getting their voice heard in a similar way to you?
I think the best advice is to do your homework and find likeminded folk to work with. It’s worth remembering that paradoxically we normally underestimate what we’re capable of changing, while at the same time we normally underestimate the amount of work it takes to change something. Other than that, get stuck in and have fun.
Mark Thomas: The Red Shed, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Tickets: £17.50. Info: 029 2064 6900 / www.shermantheatre.co.uk