By Joe Duggan, in Madrid
AFTER treating Madrid’s Ancora venue to an hour of dazzling standup comedy – 40 minutes in English, 21 in Spanish – the peerless Eddie Izzard addresses the recent seismic political changes on each side of the pond. “Half of America is walking backwards, and half of the U.K. is walking backwards,” the prominent Remain campaigner says. “We need to fight. I’m fighting back here. I hope you’re fighting back.”
Comedy as political weapon is not perhaps something you would immediately associate with Izzard’s kaleidoscopic standup, despite his strong affiliation to the Labour Party. But beneath the majestically surreal flights of imagination Izzard launches into, there is a clear subtext here. Mastering a set in another language (the third time he has done so) is a way of breaking down boundaries that directly challenges the divisiveness of Brexit and Trump.
On the opening night of an eleven-date run at the Spanish capital, Izzard is on top form as he starts the next leg of his mammoth Force Majeure world tour. Sketches on Charles I – ‘Charlie One’ – and his court wearing dogs on their head, a scuba-diving God in a canteen and Julius Caesar’s indignation that his namesake salad is more famous than him are classic Izzard. There is no other comic in the world who can spin life’s mundanity into hallucinatory hilarity with such impressive results.
Izzard’s take on the origins of the word ‘watershed’ sees him mimic submerged people shouting profanities at one another. Watching Izzard perform is like sitting on a thrilling fairground ride whose twists and swoops take you completely by surprise.
The intimate venue has a strong British contigent, but the Spanish section of the set gets just as many laughs. Izzard’s linguist brother, Mark, sits in the wings to prompt him if he stumbles on a word, which he seldom does. As the Madrid run develops, Izzard plans to expand the Spanish part of the show.
“This will fxxxxxx kick Brexit in the teeth,” he says at one point. The show is laced with references to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and digs at the incoming US president (“Human sacrifice, Trump hasn’t brought it in yet, but we know it’s at the back of his mind.”) Izzard blends the surreal and the political to wonderful effect and to have mastered a show in a fourth language (he has previously performed in French and German) is testament to his restless endeavour and extraordinary work rate.
Speaking to the Olive Press before the show, Izzard explains how he has tackled performing in Spanish. “I build it up, I learn it first like a play,” he says. “I will learn the language afterwards. In the shortest time possible you can get a show in good Spanish. I now have a show I can take to central and southern America.” He says he is planning to take three hours of conversational Spanish lessons a day while travelling through cities like Havana.
Once the set is written, his brother checks it through and polishes it into Spanish. A run of dates in Barcelona preceded his current Madrid stint. “They seem to like it,” he says. “I know the comedy works if the audience are switched on.” The Madrid crowd’s response to the Spanish section of the show underlines how his brand of humour, straight from the British tradition of the likes of Monty Python, translates succesfully to a foreign audience.
Away from the comedy circuit and a successful career as an actor, Izzard has thrown himself into some mammoth tasks. Running 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa for Sport Relief was a staggering, not to mention risky, feat of endurance. It’s hard not to see that sort of drive and willingness to communicate with the world as the same hunger that inspires his forays into foreign-language standup.
During the Brexit campaign, Izzard spent £36,229 of his own money to fight for Remain, touring 31 British cities in 31 days as he fought to keep Britain in the EU. His spending drew scorn from sections of the right-wing British press, as if a comedian nailing his colours to the mast was a reason to ridicule. But it is clear, with the Brexit fog of war still thick on the battlefield, that Izzard is ready for the fight.
“We seem to be going back to the 1930s,” he says. “Brexit has given people permission to hate. It is just wrong.”
As a man who wears women’s clothes – “They´re my clothes,” he says. “I bought them”) , Izzard is no stranger to bigotry and intolerance. Just last month, a man was found guilty of using threatening and abusive language after calling the 54-year-old comedian a ‘fxxxxxx poofter’ in a London street.
The instinct to battle this type of prejudice and ignorance and stand up for his principles has encouraged Izzard to take the next step in his political campaigning.
“I have run everywhere, I have played everywhere. I am going to run for MP in 2020,” he says. “I don’t know where, but we shall see.
“In Britain we voted to go back to 1973. What the fxxx was interesting about 1973? Moving out of the single market was a crazy idea. We are going to be begging companies to stay in the country. We need to be positive.”
Comedy’s loss could yet be Westminster’s gain.