Written and performed by Martin Figura,
Produced by Sarah Ellis,
Directed by James Grieve.
1.45pm. Zoo Venue, 140 Pleasance, until August 29th.
(Book, “Whistle” published by Arrowhead Press, £10)
I was so relieved when I heard Tim Crouch, an actor and director, say that he doesn’t like seeing actors acting. If you want to illustrate someone lifting up their arm it is not necessary to lift your actual arm. People might be able to imagine it, in their actual heads. I like watching people pretending on screen, but I don’t like it when they’re in the room with me. That’s why I tend to prefer watching comedians, performance poets and poets. They may take me somewhere else but they don’t have to pretend we’ve all disappeared first.
“Whistle” evokes disappearances powerfully though; A happy boyhood, A Mother who is murdered by her husband, a father obscured by mental illness, the vanished worlds of a certain sort of sixties suburban childhood and an exiled Catholic’s life in pre war Silesia.
Martin Figura tells his astonishing family story through poetic narrative and a slide show of family photographs and slide images constructed with the same humour and eye for exact detail that permeate his words. He stands centre stage between the screen and projector and a table where a box brownie camera is half in shadow. The family images represent both what is present and not present, what will always be preserved. Figura is a photographer too, and a poem, titled in the accompanying book “Born”, describes; my first focus/an iris/an aperture dilating/a click, whilst “Vanishing Point”, after he is taken from the family home following his mother’s murder, ends “Then there is just white light/and the loose flapping sound/of a film escaping its gate”.
For me, the choices he made about different types of language to use to convey different points of the narrative, were pitch perfect and an example of live literature operating at its very highest level; where the marrying of form and content in the differences between spoken and written, public and private language means that you have a piece which works brilliantly live and on the page. I think this also happened, in a different way, in Molly Naylor’s “Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You”, also produced by Sarah Ellis.
I loved, for example, the heightening of language into more intense metaphor just after the murder; “I begin a shadowless rotation/through the silence, heads are planets/the doctor’s few thin hairs/the rings of Saturn/…my sisters and I small lost moons” , the joyous rhythmic list of “The Piggotts” who come to the rescue as he’s abandoned by relatives, cathartic just when he and, we as the audience, needed it to be; “Taken prisoner by this bashing clouting clan/Jammed between Danny and John” and the plaintive, angry child rhyme thanking the aforementioned relatives for emigrating without telling him, Thank You “for not troubling us with regret/for not giving comfort your address/for bothering to care less/for going to Canada on a jet”. The repeating form of the villanelle “Exile” is perfect for conveying his father’s alienation from both his old and new lives, how “He comes home with pickled cabbage” but “Snapshots have kept him hostage”.
The poem “Victor” won the Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize and perfectly encapsulates the tension between the continuing reminders of war, in the form of children’s games, and their parents attempts to bury it; “The pavement is so littered with Germans/that men must pick a way through/to reach their gates and take their sons/down paths into quiet houses.”
I also loved the audio interjections of extracts from his mother’s letters. It really gives poignant flesh to what could have been quite a vague sense of an archetypal, whit e gloved, lost Mum. She is present as the hopeful young fiancé “I want it to be nice, to go to bed without curlers”, making a devotion of domestic duties “As it’s representative on earth she sets/the lemon meringue onto the cloth” and poignantly and heartbreakingly, as she would have been on her seventieth birthday in the poem that ends the live show and the book “June’s Birthday Waltz”; “Take my arm, my arm, my arm/seventy verses of wishes/ seventy verses of ghosts/let us step through these mirror-ball stars” . Against black and white movie footage of couples dancing, this was another crescendo of poignancy in the live show and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member desperately fumbling for a tissue before being ejected back into the bright lights of Edinburgh.
Martin told his story so skilfully that it didn’t evoke sympathy for him, rather empathic identification. Anyone who has ever felt like a lost child, a lonely child, a child between two or more incompatible worlds, a child trying to make sense of the obscure and obscured world of adults, a child who is trying to evoke and reconcile with their memories of their parents, can hear, see and viscerally feel echoes here.
The story doesn’t end, as real life stories often don’t, with an apology and full redemption, though there is a reconciliation of sorts with his father who continues not to be able to confront what he has done and is portrayed with more heightened metaphor as a fish “All I get is maggoty river-breath. The gilt/of your scales dull in the air”. It is testament to Figura’s ability to speak the words clearly enough without performing them out of existence that the word “gilt” stands out in the live show even without the benefit of the enjambment on the page. Truly however, he fulfils the promise given in the poetic prologue that this will not be “pity, cold as a gun” but “mercy, and I a good son”
There was only one thing I could have wanted to be here that wasn’t, and since I had exactly the same thought in the same room a year ago when watching Molly Naylor’s show, I wonder whether this is purely subjective, or a consequence of a live literature show that hinges on an cataclysmic event that takes place off stage and “off book”. In Molly’s show, a tube explosion, in Martin’s show, the murder of his mother. This is prefaced and succeeded beautifully here, but I could have done with a longer moment of silence or black screen or something to absorb the event, before resuming with how “The whole thing tips upside down at the news”. A moment perhaps where the audience and performer share or imagine or fail to imagine what is not possible to convey in words.
“Whistle” is one for the most powerful and coherent pieces of work I’ve ever had the privilege to see and that is due to Martin’s enormous skill, versatility and honesty as a poet, and the staging that showcased this. For me, it is a landmark and a masterclass in what can be done in the live literature at a time when collaborations in theatre, comedy, film, music and dance call their siren songs. Poems and images done as well as this can be the most simple, and yet the most beautiful of what can possibly be achieved.