Arts Review: Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent at the Leicester Square Theatre

Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas is an establishment friendly anarchist. As an activist who battles against corporate profligacy, criminality and social injustice with a likeable zeal, a man with whom it’s very hard to disagree, assuming you have any libertarian instincts at all, he rallies audiences with the simple, yet joyful message that we’re neither as powerless, nor beholden to vested interests as we’re programmed to believe: we can fight back. There’s only one problem – the powers that be don’t give a shit. Thomas’s acts (only cynics would call them stunts), good old fashioned agitprop, instinctively appeal to the rebel in all of us, but they’re not going to fell empires.

Thomas is disinclined to charter a plane and fly it into Apple Headquarters, probably because like most artists he uses a Mac (a regrettable oversight given their treatment of Chinese workers), and he’s not in town to incite riots and mass civil disobedience of the kind that killed the poll tax. Instead his prescription for change is minor dissent, a sort of nuisance protest or mosquito politics, that’s designed to get people thinking politically, make them conscious of the inequities that blight the society the majority of them have no stake in, and hold powerful institutions to account. “I’m doing this because I’m 50 and I don’t give a fuck” he tells us, introducing the project, but it’s clear he does give a fuck, perhaps two fucks, which is why he’s prepared to spend time hijacking home viewings in his neighbourhood to keep house prices down, affix images of dog owners to their hound’s faeces and add images of crowning babies to off the shelf pornography. This is undoubtedly a life well spent and arguably the only intellectually defensible use of one’s time in a world in thrall to conformity and thought terminating clichés, but as a tool to radicalise Joe and Jacinda Public it seemed to me pretty futile.

It would be wonderful to think that a masturbating gorilla, in possession of one of Thomas’s modified wank mags, would look at the altered image and question their objectification of the female form, or that a dog owner, stumbling upon their photograph in the park, flagged to a turd, would instinctively understand the critique of their inconsiderate bent and amend their behaviour accordingly, but the soul crushing reality is that both targets would be more confused than self-aware. Deviations from model behaviour are degenerate and senseless to many. Social cohesion relies on that bit of programming. This alludes to the permanent and fatal error in Thomas’s conception of protest. It is, in essence, a discontent’s will to power – an attack on the feckless masses and the droid control ships that sustain them: a strike against a homogeneous culture, gaining its prestige and sense of worth from a small group of like-minded peers.

Thomas’s acolytes, and I count myself amongst them, came ready to applaud every punch socked to the man, and did (before returning to their lives of sterile conformity), yet sitting in the dark I felt real frustration: the sure and certain knowledge that a light-touch revolution operates on a similar time scale to evolution; that private acts of rebellion were not enough in a world crowded out by yes men and women.

Another problem with these acts of dissent was how derivative they were of those featured in Kim Noble Will Die (2009), the eponymous comedian’s seminal act of self-castigation, and perhaps the most personal and brave show ever fostered on an audience (a show that *really didn’t give a fuck). Noble’s piece included similar wheezes – the “improvement” of consumer bric-a-brac like books and greetings cards, returned to their point of sale; little acts of consumer terrorism; but context mattered. For Noble these petty subversive interventions were informed by deep-seated unhappiness. He kicked against a kind of spirit-crushing impotence, engendered by his depression. It felt less like politics than therapy. No applause was sought from a righteous audience. This was one man iconoclasm.

Whether Thomas has seen Noble’s show or knows of its contents is open to speculation, but the undoubted effect for those who have is a lessening of impact as his acts are unveiled. It’s like listening to someone acting out a sketch from last night’s TV. Thomas’ tirade seemed so affected by comparison. It’s not his fault; his comedy comes from conscience not self-absorption, but the thought he was inadvertently aping Noble curled the lips. You could imagine an unwitting Mark placing his modified book back on the shelf, spoiler slip of paper inserted at mid-point, proud of this original anarchic fart, unaware that one of Noble’s was nested nearby, ready to wrongfoot the (un)lucky consumer who plucked it, or that in the adjoining phone shop lay a clay iPhone that Noble had made at home and swapped for the display model. Does Noble’s relative anonymity and individualism make him more or less challenging to orthodox thinking? It’s a question that doesn’t trouble you during Thomas’s show, or even afterwards, but the next day when you’re reviewing it.

None of which should disparage Mark Thomas’s sincere and often inventive attempts at poking capitalism and reflecting some of society’s most egregious and complacent assumptions back to it. He’s a peaceful campaigner and like many of the best comedians, highly effective at showcasing absurdities hiding in plain sight. The question posed by this show is once you’ve shamed an indifferent corporation with a “bastardtrade” mark and lopped a few pounds off WH Smith’s profits by affixing an “also available in charity shops” sticker to their new best seller, then what? How do you vault over glibness to give our self-serving overlords a sleepless night? 100 Acts of Minor Dissent has no answers but it stokes the imagination and maybe that’s enough.

100 Acts of Minor Dissent goes to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and returns to the Leicester Square Theatre, London (all 100 completed) in 2014. See: http://www.markthomasinfo.co.uk/ for details.

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