This solo show by poet Martin Figura is astonishing. It’s astonishing not because of its staging, which is very still and simple, but by virtue of the story Figura tells – when he was just nine years old his father killed his mother – and the way he chooses to tell it.
Whistle is a collection of poems, performed in a matter-of-fact style, about Figura’s family and childhood. This awful shadow of his mother’s death is the heart of the piece and yet at the same time it is part of a broader story. Figura’s father came from Silesia to the UK following the Second World War, having served for a short time in the German army. In this country he met and married Figura’s mother, young and besotted, always immaculately dresses, a wearer of white gloves. They were happy for some time but his father became increasingly ill and paranoid, suspicious of everything and everyone.
The piece is full of details picked out by a poet’s eye: the marble-barrelled pens bought to fill school pencil-cases, the Cliff Richard quiffs of his boyhood, the smell of pickled cabbage and Polish sausage, the women in black who flocked round him like birds on a visit to his father’s homeland. The writing also marks itself out by the things omitted. Figura steers purposefully away from extremes of emotion; he shares his story but leaves things unsaid, untold. The poems are left to do their work, a boy’s world vanishes. We glimpse Figura and his sister floating ‘equidistant, not just from the walls, but the floor and ceiling too’, orbited by relatives and the inevitable priest. We glimpse a car pulling, peeling away from the pavement, a childhood being left behind.
An old Box Brownie camera sits on a table one side of the stage and a series of still images are projected on the other: toothy, gleaming family photographs, a Man from UNCLE membership card and, of course, the newspaper headlines, his father’s face stark in black and white. All that is left of the smiling time is celluloid, sepia, coiled in a film canister: the fireplace his father built, the easy chair, a gloved hand on a shoulder.
Figura would later be abandoned once more by relatives and brought up within the care system. But this is not a piece about blame, nor is it one conceived in anger – though there are inevitable traces of pain. It’s an elegant account of a family’s history, the stories behind the snapshots, the shadows that shape a life, painted in words and frozen images, memory given voice.