“They hate it when we laugh at them”

Situated in the northern West Bank, the Palestinian city Jenin is an area fractured by cultural divisions, demonstrations, military occupation and the never- ending shower of gunfire. The comedian Mark Thomas decides to hold a comedy club in Jenin’s refugee camp, based at the Jenin Freedom Theatre. With the help of two of his students, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, Thomas brings to life through clownish satire who attended the comedy club and what took place during the workshops. However, the freedom to express oneself is not so easy under dictatorial control and tight censorship. The truth is, stories that can make one laugh might expose and reveal what is supposed to be hidden.

Thomas’s day begins in the early morning light to the loud sound of the muezzin. He totally respects religious worship but is there any chance the “faithful could be called to prayer on a WhatsApp group?” Under the smell of fresh parsley and onions cooking there is the continuous sound of gunfire, has someone been shot? Alhayjaa corrects him; it is merely the shots of celebration from kids finishing their school exams.

Fast-paced, the comedians dart from provocative fruit sellers selling tomatoes, to the invention of see-through burkas and what happens during curfew. Surely it is obvious why the Palestinian birth rate has increased? Thomas, Alhayjaa and Shehada perform a seamless re-enactment of the committee who arrive to judge the students’ pieces. With a toad-like expression, slumped over their stools, their arms fly and a futile altercation begins to set fire. They point the finger at those undermining a totalitarian state but it seems the students’ material is pointing the finger back at them.

With demonstrations that are beginning to escalate in support of the Palestinian hunger strike, Thomas is supposed to be attending a rally in Ramallah. However travelling there is not so easy. Barriers are brought across at an Israeli checkpoint; it seems they are governed by soldiers who look as young as teenagers and still have acne.

A forest of tents, people crying, is this how we always define a “refugee?” When we lack understanding, we seem to make our own preconceived ideas and then we gradually paint a stereotypical portrait, which is misconstrued. This causes alienation. How can a Palestinian be able to get their visa accepted in the UK when we are governed by a bureaucratic system, filled with racial discrimination, incompetent police officers and borders closing?

Through sharp, raw sketches, Thomas creates a collage filled with voices that have stories to tell, truths to remember and subversive messages to be opened. The ability to humiliate those in power is a comedian’s most powerful weapon. If they keep laughing at their face, how long does it take before it begins to break them? The more they laugh, the angrier the authorities become and the angrier they become, the weaker they appear. Gradually the cracks under the surface begin to become visible. This is where comedy can be so effective.

A moment that will resonate with me for years to come was an extract of footage projected of Alahayjaa’s cousin in Jenin. He brings to light the power of performance, telling us that the stage is just like throwing stones at the authorities. He inspires Alahayjaa but he also reminds us that you must have the courage of your convictions and to fight for your dream, especially if you want to become a “Palestinian Romeo”.

ShowTime from the Frontline played at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21 April

Photo: Steve Ullathorne