Belfast Telegraph

Friday 30 January 2015

Clowning around in ruins of a bombed-out country

A tangerine, a bubble machine and stilts — not the first three things you’d think of for someone about to embark on a life-changing journey.

When Jo Wilding hurled the contents of her compost bin at Tony Blair, she’d no idea that her actions would take her, almost a decade later, to Belfast’s Brian Friel Theatre via Baghdad.

It was 2001, and Jo was protesting at the UN’s sanctions in Iraq. Unicef had reported that 5,000 children were dying every month as a consequence of the crackdown, and she and her friends decided to let the Prime Minister know their feelings when he visited their home city of Bristol.

“We had thought about demonstrating with posters and things, but then someone came up with the idea of trying to hit him with compost ...” Jo picked up a tangerine, and took aim ...

“Our actions prompted a lot of media attention. I decided to visit Iraq to see for myself what was happening just before the war. We’d heard from politicians — I wanted to talk to ordinary people to see how they viewed things.”

wShe remained during the first 11 days of bombing, until she was chucked out by the government.

On her return to England, Jo was unwinding one evening — “I was probably a bit under the influence, to be honest” — when she saw someone blowing bubbles. “I thought: ‘That’s what I need to do — take a giant bubble machine back to Iraq. In fact, I should take a whole circus.’ So I did.”

After learning to walk on stilts in her apartment bedroom Jo persuaded a clown troupe to join her, and they headed for Baghdad.

“There were times when I thought I was mad. These people needed food, water, shelter, medicine — not clowns. But they were enormously lifted by our show.

“After we’d perform, parents would say it was the first time they’d seen their children laugh since before the war. And grown-ups reacted in the same way. People were able to fill their minds with happy thoughts.”

Jo is in Belfast to see the stage adaptation of her book, Don’t Shoot The Clowns, which is running as part of festival. And there’s a story to the title, too.

“Someone said that we should learn a bit of Arabic before we went. He taught us how to say ‘don’t shoot the clowns’. We said it a lot. While we were there, people asked us to tell the world what was happening to them. This play keeps the story going, keeps it moving ...”

Don’t Shoot The Clowns, Brian Friel Theatre, until Saturday, 8pm

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