Martin Figura's Whistle was part of the Wordsworth Trust's Art and Books Festival this weekend. I am so glad I made the effort, through heavy rain in the dark, to get up there to see him perform this show.
It is a story of his mother’s death at the hands of his father when he was nine years old. Told, reviews said, in an uplifting and restrained manner.
Martin stays stationary throughout the show, using slides to provide the visual element. And someone has had great fun making up the slides. Figura is a photographer, so I presume he had some input. They use old family photos, cartoons, pictures also of memorabilia and magazines to recreate the time period, provide something other than Martin to look at (which he agreed was a good thing - for both the audience and him!). Sometimes it felt as though they were a bit too flippant (cartoon creatures added to the photos, for example), played for easy laughs, as very occasionally the text also did - "I'll protect their [an uncle and aunt] identity by giving them false names" ran one intro before revealing their true (maybe) first and surnames. And the performance really didn't need these add-ons of humour. His manner is so charming and the horror played so straight, I smiled just at the boyhood perspective and prioritisations.
The voices: poetic and narrative (as in the book, poems are interspersed with prose) are distinct and I enjoyed the variation between the two. There is an awful lot of material for him to get through, not a lot of pausing or space between the episodes, so the rip-roaring energy created by the differing rhythms helped [my] concentration. I would have liked more space though, to allow us fully to register the emotional impact of what was being said, add our own imaginative responses as the story unfolded. Thankfully Figura doesn't dictate.
The third voice is that of his mother - reading letters written to her father during courtship and as the relationship unravels. Introduced as a scouser, I was initally surprised she didn't have a stronger scouse accent, but this perhaps was a 'good thing', removing easy catagorisation. And maybe the mother didn't have one. What I struggled with was her monotone delivery (also quite fast). Whether she was declaring love or protesting at his withdrawal she sounded the same. A missed opportunity for me for some subtle drama.
And so the horrific incident is revealed, or not - as the boy didn't witness it, carted off by the authority of adults. Adults who are by turns distraught, dealing with their own grief, then saviours (a remarkable neighbour). The boy Martin takes in his stride, as child are wont to, moving between Benedictan boarding school to orphange, becoming more concerned with dealing with the rules of various institutions, while visiting his father, separated from sisters. A gripping story, yes. And carefully, senstively handled. Boundaries clearly defined between father and his teenage son.
I just wished it had stopped earlier. Moving into adulthood (including wedding photos) meant a loss of focus for me. And I wasn't really sure why, what this 'proof' of his current happiness proved - a belief in marraige, despite everything? - the comparison of two generations of weddings? - The fact he was standing there, delivering this beautifully redemptive story, was proof enough of his survival, compassion and understanding.
As a piece of live literature I think it'll (and porbably has done already) act powerfully in the service of poetry. It was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Prize for New Poetry, which has that ethic at its heart. I can imagine people coming for the story - what a draw - and witnessing the power of economy and restraint that poetry offers. Figura used few metaphors or rich language. It is perhaps unnecessary to embellish such a story with them. Ultimately it is the remarkable spirit of a boy and how his adult self relates to him that makes this piece of literature so worthwhile.