Okay so it's like a billion years* since I actually saw this performance and wrote the review (for my MA in creative writing at Newcastle university) but better late than never. You can find out when Whistle is next on by visiting Martin Figura's website.
Whistle by Martin Figura
NCLA event at The Culture Lab, Newcastle
Thursday 26th April 2012
A picture of a smiling young woman taken at some time in the late 1940s is projected above the stage as the audience take their seats. She has one hand on her hip, the other on her head. The show begins. A prologue, a poem as ritualistic chant, bleeds into the love story of Figura’s mother June and his father Frank. Her letters to her ‘Darling Frank’ are interspersed with poems about their courtship and romance. We get to know her, and like her.
The style of the show incorporates animation and audio to accompany Figura’s assured performance,which takes us through the stages of his childhood. His birth is depicted using imagery that is at the heart of this piece. The camera and the image. Freezing moments and looking back at them with an eye that knows more than the subjects could see.
I am a boy
slick as celluloid
my first focus
an aperture dilating
The balance between pathos and humour is established early. The history that Frank tried to conceal (his time with the Hitler Youth and as a soldier in the German army during the Second World War) is revealed in the prose sections that link the poems. The darkness of the piece is never far from the surface and is present in the black and white stills of the young couple in love, the sweetheart letters from June and the idyllic family photographs.
Humour guides the piece away from sentimentality; it frames the structure, softens what is about to come or lightens what has been. It reminds us that it’s going to be okay to laugh, sometimes. Frank’s desire for Figura to become a doctor is comically shown through the poem Fountain Pen accompanied by a suitably lo-fi animation. It is clear the boy is incapable of looking after it let alone any would be patients. By the time the young Figura journeys to Poland the momentum taking us to the central event in the show and in Figura’s young life is unstoppable. Frank’s increasing paranoia is powerfully evoked in Litany, with its ritualistic chanting undercut by the sparse use of bells tolling as he repeats:
She is a Protestant
She is faithless
She is poisoning me
Sie ist protestantisch.
Sie ist treulos.
Sie vergiftet mich
There is a brief pause as we see an image of Figura and his mother outside a pretty cottage – the image fades as Figura says:
I could print this photograph
so dark, there would only be
her hand on my shoulder.
The brutality of June’s murder is unstated in the poem In My Parents’ Bedroom, it is implied in beautiful simplicity. The room becomes the only witness to this act “the dressing table’s arms are full/ of fallen objects, its mirror dumb.” The horror is amplified by the sparseness of detail, the seeming quiet that surrounds it.
This poem could form the natural climax for the show and the collection but this is not all Figura wants to say. The story isn't over; the child still has to grow up. In the brief Q&A that followed Figura said that it was like the Second World War had swept through his family twenty years after it ended and the same would be true for many others. Whistle is more than a document of personal family history; alongside dealing with the trauma of his mother’s murder and the subsequent break-up of his family, Figura writes about war, mental illness, society, growing up in 1960s Britain, fitting in, coming to terms, acceptance and love.
Whistle bridges the divide between page and performance poetry. The collection came first but it is clear that the production took as much craft and care as the writing had done. The combination of AV and simple staging produces a show with immediacy. The AV enhances, underlines and sometimes gives you something you weren't expecting. Like the picture of Frank’s sitting room after his release.The accompanying poem Record is about a Dansette record player. You can see it in the photo. But what you can also see is the picture of June on the wall unit. The formal portrait with her beautiful black hair and the smile that we've come to recognise. The impact of seeing that picture in that sitting room is one of the many remarkable moments when the images work with the poetry in unexpected ways. Go see it.
*okay so it's only eleven months.