Mark Thomas - a dissenter’s challenge to the status quo

HE IS taking the British police to court over data collection; held a flash mob in Apple’s London store in protest against multi-nationals and tax avoidance; ran a pro-choice rally in Belfast; and is determined to get banned from every Tesco store.

He is Mark Thomas, the British comedian, commentator, and journalist, and these acts of rebellion are at the heart of his latest stand-up show 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent, which he is bringing to the Róisín Dubh.

“It’s a comedy art show, a break away homage to the Fluxus art movement, a wink at the Situationists, and a rolling ramshackle fight of a show,” he tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “I’ve 72 acts committed so far and I hope to achieve 80 by the end of the month. That leaves 20 to do in the next six weeks, and now is the time to rise to the challenge.”

In May 2013, Mark set himself a challenge, to commit 100 dissenting acts over the next 12 months, the motivation being that if he failed, he would have to donate £1,000 to UKIP.

“I loath UKIP with all my heart, so it’s quite a motivation,” Mark tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “It does make you get out of bed in the morning and say, ‘What do I have to do today?’”

As with previous shows - As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade; Extreme Rambling – Walking the Wall, where the Londoner walked the entire length of the Israeli Separation Barrier; and the Radio 4 series The Manifesto - 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent combines comedy, satire, political activism, campaigning journalism, and dissent against hegemonic values. Yet, surprisingly, the genesis for 100 Acts lay in Mark’s emotional tribute show to his late father, Bravo Figaro.

“Like any kind of artistic endeavour, it springs up from the situation of where you are,” he says. “My dad was working class, didn’t have a chance at a great education, but discovered opera by himself and believed in the notion of self-improvement. In his final year I staged an opera for him in his living room. The show, Bravo Figaro was about that, but also about what you do for your loved ones, and how you appreciate the good parts of them, and how we live in a world of emotional complexity, but after doing that I was just in pieces, so I wanted to do a show that was funny and fucking about and getting out into the world.”

So began a series of public actions where Mark pushes at the barriers of the law, the corporate world, politics, and contemporary socio-cultural mores. What are some of the acts of dissent that have been committed thus far?

“We’re taking the police to court for collecting data on me and on journalists. We want to know who has access to it and why is it there. You can’t do that in a free society,” says Mark. “We have four legal actions going on at the moment. It’s very exciting. As yet, no one has arrested me but there is still time. I also have to admit that I’m now too old to run away if caught doing something, so it’s easier to negotiate.”

Two of Mark’s dissenting actions thus far have had a strongly Irish flavour - a pro-choice rally in Belfast and celebrating the ‘Irishness’ of Apple Stores in London.

The idea for Belfast came from Mark’s Manifesto radio series, where, during live shows, he would ask audience members for ideas on what laws they would like to see changed and/or introduced.

“Manifesto was about getting ideas to change the world,” Mark says. “It was a very different dynamic to stand-up. At the show in Belfast one of the suggestions was to introduce the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act into Northern Ireland. That took me by surprise. I talked to people about it, but the only person willing to go on record was Dawn Purvis of the Progressive Unionist Party [the political wing of the UVF], who would not be my natural political bedfellows. She also runs the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. I was thinking that this is the wrong century for having to do this, the idea that women have to subject their bodies to the law and the whims of religious intolerance.”

In June last year, Mark organised a flash-mob outside Regent Street Apple stores to celebrate the company’s ‘Irishness’. Following hearings in Washington in 2013, Apple executives admitted the company paid a top tax rate of two per cent on $74 billion of sales outside North America over the previous three years, largely through its use of tax structures in Ireland. To draw attention to such avoidance measures, Mark and his allies entered the Apple store, waved Irish flags, and had a folk band playing Irish traditional music and song (a video of the event is on YouTube ).

“That day went very well,” he recalls. “I’d thought we’d only last two minutes there, but we lasted six and a half. We have a very good folk band who are used to playing adverse conditions. The day was about Apple’s tax structures and it’s positive to draw attention to and be part of the debate as to how corporations structure their tax affairs. I remember being interviewed by a journalist in Boston about the event. He asked me: ‘What do you think the reach is of this small event?” and I replied: ‘Well I’m talking to you and you’re in Boston mate, so that’s quite a reach.’

“Companies exist by their brand, and through advertising they put out a narrative about themselves. If you get out another narrative about them, one that is not all positive, but highlights tax avoidance, and showing that they think they are above the law, that’s important.”

Given the kind of issues his show raises, would Mark describe 100 Acts of Minor Dissent as being as much about freedom as it is about dissent?

“I don’t see the two as separate,” he replies. “Freedom has to be fought hard for and if you think you have it, then it tends to disappear, so it’s something you have to continue to fight for. I remember I was in the Deep South in the States, talking to an elderly man who was part of the Civil Rights movement and the delegation that went to Gov Wallace for the Selma-Montogmery March in 1965. He’s an old man now and I asked him what advice could he give to people interested in Civil Rights today, and he replied: ‘Constant vigilance’.

“Constant vigilance. The battle for freedom is a constant thing, so I’d say freedom and dissent go hand-in-hand. It’s not good for your mental health to let things happen, you won’t challenge yourself, you’ll become atrophied in your behaviour. We’re only here a short while and we have to live as fully as we can.”

Mark’s passion for dissent and questioning the status quo he attributes to a variety of factors, from his family’s values, to his love of punk music, to growing up in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s.

“I loved punk. I love all forms of interesting art. I want to out what’s interesting and new. I’m just naturally inquisitive and want to be a part of what’s different,” Mark says. “The Miner’s Strike was enormously influential. When I was in college in Yorkshire, these were our neighbours who were being done up, tried, and starved, and I don’t think you ever forget that. There are some things you forgive and forget, but what the Tories did to the miners and working people was unforgivable, and that’s the context in which I came of age politically.

“I’ve always had that mix within me, the old school Methodist values of hard work and absolute dedication to a cause that part of me likes mucking about. One part of me is a serious Methodist minister and the other is a clown. I’m lucky I was able to turn those two things into my job.”

So what is next on Mark’s list of dissenting acts? “Getting banned from Tesco!” he declares. “I will go around individually to each store and ask them ban me. If they don’t, I will begin to play.”

Mark Thomas brings 100 Acts of Minor Dissent to the Róisín Dubh on Wednesday April 2 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.

 

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