A new stage show by poet Martin Figura turns out to be both entertaining and thought-provoking

zeemanDr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine  
written & performed by Martin Figura
The Roundhouse, Camden, 11 May 2016
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Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine is a multi-media presentation involving a narrative/poetry monologue by Martin Figura, aided by few props and backed by images projected on a large screen behind him.

There really is such a thing as Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine: it is a mechanical device designed to demonstrate how seemingly insignificant perturbations to a system can produce abrupt and unpredictable changes of state. Figura begins the evening with a not-too-demanding account of its mathematical and engineering principles and then goes on to consider their applications in the dynamics of human affairs – in particular in the trajectory of his own life.

Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine is essentially a second episode of Martin Figura’s autobiography. The first part centred on his childhood and was contained in a previous, much-praised stage show and poetry collection Whistle (see, for instance, http://londongrip.co.uk/2011/09/poetry-reviews-2011-larger-font/#book2). This part begins with the ending of his first marriage (after about twenty years) and portrays divorce as an abrupt change of state precipitated by the critical moment of realisation that love had gone from the relationship. As to what other seemingly trivial events might have caused that affection to dissipate, Figura does not speculate or deal in blame. Instead he gives an effective and affecting account of a middle-aged man who suddenly finds himself as isolated and confused as a teenager.

Figura does not spend long in feeling sorry for himself however. Instead he moves on to talk about his relationships with the children of his first marriage. He begins by including us in a road trip through California he took with his teenage son, Sean. This is very much a journey of father-son bonding and it leads us into some fascinating and complex questions of memory and identity – and of the subtle role the camera can play in forming our recollections. We are shown a photograph of Figura as a child standing beside a Polish chimney-sweep; and it so happens, thanks to the ways that DNA adjusts itself at microscopic levels, that the physical resemblance between the young Martin and his son is particularly strong. I don’t remember that photo being taken, observes Sean, believing himself to be in the picture; and just for a moment we can all play with thoughts about how false memories can be acquired or planted. This issue is not developed – let lone laboured – but it is one of several points in the show which stick in the mind for further reflection.

The California trip also reminds Figura of the work of poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti which he had first encountered as young man; and this gives him the excuse to perform a splendid pastiche of the opening section of Howl – but with the action transposed to the north-west of England in the mid-twentieth century.

The central section of the performance focuses on Figura’s daughter, Amy. A tiny twist in DNA means that she is born with Down’s Syndrome; and while Figura tells how the doctors broke this news to the young parents the screen behind him is crammed with phrases spelling out the life-changing physical and mental consequences. And yet Amy’s story as it unfolds is not a bleak one. She proves to be strong-willed and assertive (to the extent that her parents conjecture that she may have Irritable Down’s Syndrome) and now, as an adult, she lives in sheltered accommodation with a measure of independence and an enormous capacity for having fun. It would have to be said as well that her parents showed an enormous capacity for responding positively to unexpected challenges.

In the final section of the show Figura brings his own story up to date by telling of the further abrupt change of state he experienced when he met and fell in love with the poet Helen Ivory, to whom he is now married. He presents this as another example of a middle-aged man tipped back yet again into the confusions of being a teenager – but this time the generally happier tangles of being a teenager in love.  I have said little about the poems which punctuate the narrative because they blend in so smoothly; but the closing piece ‘New Year Redux’ stands out for the beautiful way it integrates Figura’s first-time-round youthful years with his present self.  The setting is a party: but are those 1950s clothes and hair styles twenty-first century retro fancy-dress or the real thing?  Is that my mother’s gap-toothed grin, / my aunts and uncles counting down

and is this me at the back door
a lump of coal gripped in my fist?

The whole story is well-told, moving, sometimes very funny and always engaging. Figura is remarkably frank in what he tells his audience; but he includes us rather than making us feel we are intruding. And most of us, surely, will recognize that – although the outward circumstances may be very different – we too have experienced comparable catastrophes. More soberingly we are also reminded that further catastrophes lie ahead, not least those implicit in our own mortality and that of those we love. This is an entertainment which, if we let it, can nudge us towards some serious psychological and emotional reflections; and, although it does not use the language of religion or spirituality, it might stir a few theological speculations as well.

Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine will be performed next in Norwich on May 26th. Thereafter, London Grip readers should keep on the alert for news of further stagings…

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Michael Bartholomew-Biggs