Eddie Izzard: 'Everyone should have the right to have a fair chance in life; that's the only future worth fighting for'
- Brian Donaldson
- 20 September 2019
We speak to the stand-up about his love of languages, his contempt for populist politicians and how he can get comedy from something as simple as a barking dog
There's a storm brewing when Eddie Izzard sits down with me in a yurt at Edinburgh International Book Festival's Charlotte Square Gardens. 'This is like winter, not summer!' bemoans the stand-up, actor, marathon runner, master of four languages and prospective Labour MP (or Mayor of London if there's a vacancy in that job first) as he wonders how the likes of Trump, Johnson and co can deny that the climate has changed.
'Those politicians are trying to take us back to the 1930s,' warns Izzard. 'It's not going to work, because humanity cannot work if we try that. They're called populist, but they all have power through a minority vote, so by definition that makes them the "unpopulists". The "simplistics" is a better name because all they have is to just hate a group of people and build a wall or leave Europe, whatever it is. I'm going to fight that. We have to have a fair world. Every one of the 7.5 billion people in this world should have the right to have a fair chance in life; that's the only future worth fighting for. Everything else is just not acceptable.'
Ahead of his Wunderbar tour, Izzard has one eye beyond entertainment as he gets set to throw himself into the often brutal world of politics. 'It will take up a big chunk of my time: I'll Glenda Jackson myself in and Glenda Jackson myself out,' he insists, referencing the actor who had a successful political career from 1992 before returning to play King Lear in 2016. 'I don't know how long I'll be in it, but I've said for about nine years that I'll go in and that time has now come.'
Before that moment arrives, Izzard will be playing to packed-out houses with his first major show since his Force Majeure trotted the globe in 2013. For that show, he played intimate warm-up gigs performing the whole thing three times in a day, in French, German and then English. He says he built up Wunderbar in French with sets in Paris before working it through in German. His continual fascination with learning new languages hasn't stopped at three, as he's recently added Spanish to his vocal repertoire.
'None of them are inherently funny, the language is just the delivery method, that's all it is. All swear words in each language are pretty bonkers, though. Arabic and Russian are next on the list. Nelson Mandela said that if you talk to a person in your language you talk to their mind, but if you talk to them in their language, you talk to their heart. That's a nice thought.'
While Izzard has a strong social conscience and has been active in politics since it was reported in the late 90s that he was a Labour party donor, he has never inserted anything overly political into his stand-up. And despite the divisive nature of our political landscape at home and abroad, and his own future plans, don't expect to hear anything political in Wunderbar.
'If you talk about Donald Trump, then next week it's out of date, so you're just shooting yourself in the foot. But I will do historical politics and social history, stuff about where we all come from and where we're driving to as human beings. That's more important, because that's about the beginning of time; you go back to the Big Bang and then look at the next Big Bang and that arc. That's what I'm looking at in this show.'
When I told a couple of people I was set to interview Eddie Izzard, they both texted back with the words 'le singe est dans l'arbre', referencing a famous monkey-based routine from his breakthrough work at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival that was aired on Channel 4 in the early 90s. Izzard has had a particular fondness for animals in his work, lending them human properties which sat well with his surrealist perspective on the world (his one attempt at writing a TV sitcom had a family of humans pretending to be cows: it was called Cows). He even had original material on the difference between cats and dogs (the sound of purring made him think of a cat, goggles on, drilling behind the sofa). A dog will make an appearance in Wunderbar.
'I'm going to talk about when I was running a marathon and I heard this dog barking. I've got a 15-minute piece out of it, just from the angle that I was coming at it from: what was that dog trying to say? I never write things down, I do it on stage and call it "verbal sculpting". Each night I make the same sculpture but it will be slightly different every time.'
Eddie Izzard is a man who could make the phone book funny. In at least four languages.
Eddie Izzard: Wunderbar, King's Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 2–Sat 5 Oct; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Sat 19 & Sun 20 Oct.