'Life's catastrophes can work out for the best': Norwich poet Martin Figura on his new show

PUBLISHED: 09:52 15 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:06 15 June 2018

Martin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave Gutteridge

Martin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman's Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave Gutteridge


Martin Figura's latest show finds him pondering what can be retrieved from life's catastrophes, large and small. He is bringing it back to Norfolk on a double-bill with his earlier show about his childhood.

Martin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman�s Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave GutteridgeMartin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman�s Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave Gutteridge

Award-winning poet, writer, photographer, teacher, retired army major, qualified accountant, Randy Newman fan and photographer, Martin Figura is many things, but mostly a poet.

He has exhibited and performed his work internationally, and he will be back on home soil when he brings his latest spoken word show, Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, to Norwich Arts Centre this month.

Born in Liverpool, leaving school at 15 to spend 25 years in the Army, Martin now lives in Norwich with his wife, fellow poet Helen Ivory. He runs Café Writers, the monthly readings of poetry and prose held at the Louis Marchesi in Tombland,

Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, which he first performed at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2016, finds him pondering what can be retrieved from life’s catastrophes and wounds in a stage production that uses mathematics guru Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman’s iconic machine, the moon and photographs.

The show is a follow-up of sorts to his previous show, Whistle, a multi-media depiction of a post-war British childhood using poetry, family photographs and visuals to explores themes of identity, forgiveness, loss, adoption and family with insight and gentle humour.

Whistle is being specially revived in Norwich in a double-bill with the current show.

What can you tell us about Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine?

It’s a reckoning and picks up where Whistle, the show about my childhood, left off. It looks at my life’s small, and not so small, catastrophes and how in the long run they have worked out for the best. Behind this it looks at memory, the way it shifts and how we shape it into a story that we can present to ourselves and the world. It is sad and funny, sometimes at the same time.

Martin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave GutteridgeMartin Figura is bringing his show Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine to Norwich Arts Centre. Photo: Dave Gutteridge

What can the audience expect?

I am accompanied on stage by a pseudo Catastrophe Machine, built by Paul Finally from an old bike frame, a salvaged washing machine engine and car windscreen wiper motors - it makes a great noise. As with Whistle the show draws on photography and has visuals put together with Andre Barreau, supported by myself and Karen Hall. Andre has also put together the soundscape that runs through the show. I go ‘On The Road’ across California in a mid-life crisis sports car with a perpetually hungry teenage son. I’ll open my box of family photographs and explore the way memory shifts with the help of Roland Barthes. My Down’s Syndrome daughter Amy shows us all how to live.

Your daughter Amy is a cornerstone of the show, has she been to see it yet?

Amy has seen the pictures and ‘co-operated’ in some reconstructions for the benefit of the show, but she would never sit through an hour of me talking without interrupting or even demanding that I shut up and take her bowling. She is a wondrous being, but being a quiet audience member isn’t one of them, especially when here are picture of her on a big screen to shout about. She is not prepared to be reasonable about this.

Your work has often had a biographical aspect, why do you think that is?

I have in many ways had an extraordinary life, which I’ve somehow come through and ended up ridiculously happy. Writing is the best of way of making sense of that and coming to an understanding. Fortunately it does seem to interest people. I have of course have been engaged in accountancy for a good part of it - I’m saving this element of my life for the musical.

Your life has certainly been varied, with full blown careers in the army, accounting and photography, can you imagine changing tack again or is poetry the career you were always destined for?

I think this is it now, I thought perhaps I’d have the time for more photography but I don’t and I miss it. Poetry and spoken word is where my head is at, and I feel I’m only just getting into my stride.

What distinguishes spoken word performance from a theatre show?

Not much really, other than it contains some poetry - which some people are allergic to. It also tends not to be ‘acted’ - that is me up there, being me.

Your wife, Helen Ivory, is also a poet – what are the pros and cons of living and working with someone in the same field?

Only pros as far as I’m concerned. Helen is not only a very accomplished writer, but also a first class teacher and editor. She sits right behind me as I write - literally and metaphorically. She has been essential to my development as a writer, we discuss our work with each other every day. We have no trouble spending every day together; in fact we’re pretty rubbish at being apart and keep it to a minimum.

Martin Figura show Doctor Zeeman�s Catastrophe MachineMartin Figura show Doctor Zeeman�s Catastrophe Machine

Why is it important to you to perform your work live to a wide range of audiences?

First and foremost I am a show off and love performing. It is the most exciting part of the creative process for me. There is nothing quite like direct engagement with an audience, it gets the work out there and tests it. The demography and boundaries of spoken word are broadening and I’m excited about the theatrical possibilities being explored by artists such as Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland and Jemima Foxtrot amongst others. It is a really interesting time for Spoken Word, with enormous untapped potential.

How would you describe Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine in three words?

Not very well — or, if you prefer, a happy ending.

• Martin Figura: Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine/Whistle, Norwich Arts Centre, June 20, £6 (£10 both shows), 01603 660352,

• More about Martin’s work at

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