Mark Thomas has been known as a comedian and activist for the best part of 25 years. From his first appearances on Radio 1 in the late 80s through to hosting his own TV show, The Mark Thomas Product, until 2002, he has consistently shown himself to be a performer who wants to have a positive impact on the world while also making people laugh. He has successfully campaigned for changes to tax law, exposed loopholes in arms trading regulations, broken a world record for the most number of political demonstrations held in one day, and walked the entire length of the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank.
But his new show is a different beast, not least in that its premise is not overtly political. Bravo Figaro is the story of Mark’s father, who has been diagnosed with the degenerative disease progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), and his family’s attempts to come to terms with the situation via his passion for opera. At the time of writing the show has already won two awards in Edinburgh after just a few performances, and Mark will tour it across the country when the festival ends, including a date at the Lyceum in Sheffield next month.
Let’s start from the top – tell me about the new show, Bravo Figaro.
The show is quite a bizarre story, and the most personal show I’ve ever done, I think. Comics always use our families in some way, shape or form, either directly or indirectly, but this is very directly as my mum and dad’s voices are actually in the show in recorded interviews. They help tell the story.
Me and my dad had a problematic relationship in many ways, but when he became ill with progressive supranuclear palsy, we started to lose him to dementia. PSP is little known but is as prevalent of motor neurone disease, and is often misdiagnosed, which obviously compounds the problem. It’s incurable and degenerative. Really it’s a breakdown of the body and the mind.
My dad discovered a love of opera when he was an adult. He shouldn’t have discovered it – a working class man who left school with no formal qualifications – but he did. So as we began to lose him as a personality and a character, I started to listen to it as a way of reaching out to him.
I know the idea initially came after you were a guest on Inheritance Tracks on Radio 4, but after that you were commissioned to write a show for the Royal Opera House. Tell me about that.
It’s not every day that you get asked to do something at the Royal Opera House, especially as a comic. There was a bit of me that thought, “Is there another Mark Thomas who writes opera? Are you sure you’ve got the right one?”
It was amazing actually. If you’re a comic, you get asked to meet all sorts of folk. Invariably it all comes to nothing, so you don’t actually get excited about some of these things. Mike Figgis is a fascinating bloke – film director and occasional opera director – and he was the one curating the festival I was commissioned for. To be completely honest, it was a bizarre series of coincidences, but Mike and the Royal Opera House were really interested in getting me to a place where I could do the show.
You started performing the new show in Edinburgh last month. How has it gone down so far?
It’s all gone very well. It’s strange – you change the name of what you do to ‘theatre’ and they give you awards. It’s great. I’m going to do it more often – change my name and change my game and see if they give me more awards. We got the Fringe First and the Herald Angel Awards. It’s great to get these things, because the show is so different, and so personal. Awards are always shit and irrelevant until you get one.
You must be used to a different reaction from audience members.
Yeah, it’s been really moving. People come up and tell stories about how their parents have been affected by PSP, and what’s happened to them. Because you’ve offered up a story, people reciprocate. Normally I finish a show, I walk into the bar and I’m having an argument and get given a leaflet within two minutes. And that’s good, but this time around it’s very different. I’ve got emails and tweets and all sorts from people who know folk with PSP, and because it’s relatively unknown and often misdiagnosed, you get the sense of people coming out of isolation. Someone wrote me a letter saying, “My dad’s got PSP. It’s like being in a Beckett play!”
Compared with Extreme Rambling, a show about you walking the length of the Israel-Palestine separation wall, this show is almost at the other end of the spectrum, but from the sounds of it still has the trademark intensity of a Mark Thomas show.
Yeah, if you’re looking for an evening of light-hearted entertainment, don’t come. But the point is, do you want to do a show that is memorable or not? Do you want to do a show that people connect with, or do you just want to be entertainment between the curry and the sex?
You want to connect with people. You want to have an impact. People say, “Oh, but can theatre actually change anything?” Of course it can, because its primary function is to get you feeling something or thinking something you didn’t before you came into the theatre. From my point of view – politically and personally – I’m all about moving people and connecting with people. It’s about being intense. Life’s short and you have to get on with it, so I’m not going to waste time.
Am I right in thinking you have been working with the PSP Association to raise awareness of the disease as well?
I’ve been in contact with them, and we’ve done interviews and stuff. Certainly they’ve got members and doctors coming to the show. It’s just about getting people along and raising awareness – not a major campaign. If any of your readers has a relative with PSP, they should get in touch, because they’ve got a fantastic phone line service which they’ve just set up.
One of the great things about performing is that it’s about empathy, but actually also it’s about community, and helping people realise they’re not alone. In the early days of HIV/AIDS awareness, I did gigs for the Terrence Higgins Trust, and at the end of the show they’d turn the lights on and people in the audience would read out the names of people they’d lost to AIDS. And it’s a very moving, powerful act of sharing that says, “We are not alone”. Those events are hugely significant. What I’m doing doesn’t compare, but from my point of view, all of my shows are about subjects that we should be addressing.
Mark Thomas will perform Bravo Figaro at the Lyceum on 10th October.