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Mark Thomas: Walking The Wall

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

It can be hard to have a sense of humour about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but occasionally a left-leaning comedian cannot resist the urge to tackle it. After Jeremy Hardy’s documentary film and Ivor Dembina’s live show, now Mark Thomas takes on this most important, if comically unpromising subject. To no great surprise, he reveals that his sympathies have traditionally lain with the Palestinians – although he admits those evaporated with the second intifada, when plagues of suicide bombers targeted soft, civilian targets. But Israel’s solution, an intimidating separation wall partitioning off the West Bank revived his interest. Was this a necessary security measure, or a thinly disguised siege; choking the Palestinian economy and effecting a substantial land grab through stealth and force? His conclusion probably won’t surprise. Mainstream media coverage of the situation is often limited to familiar images: Palestinians hurling rocks, scarves pulled tight over their faces, Israelis a brutal, occupying Army. So, to get a more human angle on the dispute, Thomas decided to walk the length of the barrier – all 750km of it, when it’s finished (remarkably, for such a brutal security measure, there are still gaps to be filled), chatting to locals from both sides to get a more rounded picture. This is rambling as an adrenaline sport. In many ways, he didn’t succeed: the Israeli soldiers he encountered were, to a man, inflexible bullies relishing their power, while Palestinian kids threw rocks at Thomas’s party. But Israeli settlers throw stones too – at children as young as six en route to school through their illegal communities. It’s not an edifying picture. None of this is sounding particularly promising for a fiesta of chuckles. But that’s before adding to the adventure the central character of Thomas himself – and a few of his travelling companions. Thomas plays up the idea of an Englishman abroad, bumbling through his mischievous mission without having fully thought it through, and inevitably landing him in scrapes. While he has a fine supporting cast including his long-suffering aging hippy camerman; and the splendidly affable and devil-may-care British Consul, who even Thomas is forced to admit is a specimen of Establishment at its finest, the Monty-Python quoting activist and his brutally honest local ‘fixer’ despondent at Thomas’s naivty. This then, is not a comedy about issues, but a comedy about characters, through whom Thomas can glancingly reveal the bigger picture. He’s expert at bringing this all to life, though mini-characterisations of all he encounters, and he has a hypnotic command of tone, pace and even silence, all of which can add dramatic power to his first-hand tales. The underlying stories are often bleak, and Thomas shows no fear in brining the audience down with accounts of, say, children being forced to share a tunnel with sewerage to get to school, or the plight of Palestinians who queue from 2.30am to cross the barrier to work in Israel – only to hand up to half their salary to the corrupt gang masters who secured them the permits. But humour, often of a dark hue, thrives in tough situations, and Thomas gets that most primal of laughs – associated with a threat relieved – as time and again he diffuses the tension with a flippant, but well-judged, remark. Sometimes, the joke is an afterthought, but that is inevitable when you’re making comedy out of an inherently unfunny situation. There’s a mordant wit to many of the people he encounters, however – no case more pronounced than the stoic village that, regular as clockwork, comes out with a cheerily festival spirit, to protest at the wall – knowing full well they will be tear-gassed back into submission. You can’t help but share Thomas’s opinion of the injustice of the divide; which he convincingly argues is doing Israel no favours either – yet the intransient politics of the region is not really the point; it’s part travellers’ tale, part documentary about people living in extreme conditions. Yes there are funnier shows under the banner of comedy, but Thomas tells a rich and fascinating story – as well as a crucially important one. An impeccably mesmerising storyteller, he keeps his convictions in check enough to share his experiences with disarming honesty and an appealing dry wit.

Review date: 1 Aug 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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