News Column

Mark Thomas has seen all kinds at the festival - and now he is performing in a show about betrayal

August 12, 2014

Mark Thomas



Over the years, I've seen some dire productions here, but they're always lots of fun. I love the fact that you can see anything from big to small here. The variety of experience means that you can end up seeing stuff you wouldn't normally.

One year I went to an epic performance of Macbeth with machine guns, abseiling actors and a Lady Macbeth hosing blood off the front porch. Three days later I went to an opera based on a LWT interview that Melvyn Bragg did with Francis Bacon where they got pissed and talked about art. There were 35 of us in a church hall watching this two-hander and a women playing a slightly out-of-tune piano. These unexpected moments are just as important as seeing a well-funded theatre show.

The first time I came to the Edinburgh fringe festival I was a 19-year-old student. It was mainly theatre productions then. There was a lot less comedy on. There were also more student shows because it was probably cheaper to put on a production than it is now. The mentality back then was: "We've got a few quid from the student union and the drama society so let's do a Bertolt Brecht play."

The audiences in Edinburgh change depending on the time of the performance. You do a show at 8.30pm and the crowd is a bit like: "So, impress us." They've had a drink after a tough day at work and have come to see you despite it being midweek. Then you do a show at 10am, the first show of the day, and the audience is ready. It's full of festivalgoers who are up for it. Those performances are a hoot.

Doing a standup set in Edinburgh is very different from doing theatre. If an audience likes you, their attitude to new material is: "We want it to be like the old stuff." If you're doing a standup show the audiences don't expect to do any work: they want a gag and if you talk for too long without doing a gag, you are failing them. With theatre you are given carte blanche to do whatever you want. Doing Cuckooed at the Traverse theatre sends a message to the crowd that they shouldn't expect punchlines and a standup sensibility. They should expect a narrative show that allows me to take them on an emotional and intellectual journey. You can tell I've been working in the theatre, can't you?

It took me a while to bring the story of Cuckooed to the stage [Thomas wrote for the Guardian in 2007 about his real-life experiences as a member of a campaign group betrayed by one of their number who turns out to be a spy secretly passing information to the arms company BAE Systems]. But it has happened now because the surviving campaigners were finally ready to tell their story. There has been a complex tangle of emotional responses to what happened: a sense of shame at being hoodwinked, of being angry and being aware that what happened to us was so unusual. I didn't think doing Cuckooed would be cathartic and I've been surprised that it has been. The show has made me realise that trust and friendship are central to activism. Social change is based on the idea of working together for mutual improvement, that we have more in common than what separates us. That we are bonded together.

Edinburgh is a great place to do an elaborate show like this, which makes an audience laugh and also be reflective. It's why the festival is so great.

As told to Priya Elan

Cuckooed is at The Traverse until 24 August, 0131-226 0000


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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