Building on two scratch performances held at Battersea Arts Centre in 2015, writer and performer Femi Martin returns for three nights with her one-woman show, How To Die of a Broken Heart. Martin takes her intimate audience through a series of relationships and health scares as she discovers the strange, corruptive and accommodating behaviours of humanity. As relationships and health scares form the defining moments in her life, Martin’s relationship with herself and her physicality evolves as a prominent and empowering narrative.
Martin walks onto an unadorned stage in a pair of jeans and starts talking, as simple as that. She is lit by a warm wash and commands attention through her tuneful voice, searching eyes and that indefinable spark that oozes stage presence. For most performances, this lack of set and complex lighting would be a brave move, but Martin’s depth of feeling, sense of humour, and well-structured narrative carry her through the piece with ease. She is warm and frank with her honesty, she is a girl’s best friend, an adoring girlfriend, and an inquisitive woman who learns about herself and humanity as she ‘loves’ through life.
The work engages with what it feels like to suffer from an unknown illness, to not be in control of your body, and the social and emotional consequences and coincidences that tangle up in this story. Key moments of pain or discovery in Martin’s health are set against defining moments in her relationships. The dynamic between love and health is constantly in a state of flux, reacting to one another in unpredictable ways. From a throwaway response to her condition overthrowing the dynamic of a relationship, to a dinner date causing uncontrollable vomiting, her experiences are described with the humour and excitement that Martin naturally brings to her everyday life.
Femi Martin has a delicate way of moving that illustrates actions, or embodies feelings, that bleeds in and out of habitual gestures as she speaks. A subtle body ripple, a gesture, a glance, the miming of peristalsis or of a hospital tube down the throat, make the monologue dynamic and rich. There are regular moments where Martin’s eyes reflect her tears just below the surface. This is coupled with a sensitivity of movement that physically illustrates the text with a nuanced vocabulary. Hovering between embodiment and description the empathy and discovery offered to the audience through the combination of movement and speech is gentle and affective.
Carried along by Martin’s endearing story-telling, viewers gasp at boyfriend Ricky’s manipulative behaviour, laugh at OCD Lonny, and sigh at how he makes Martin feel. Together we giggle at the dating stories and anecdotes, and breathe a sigh of relief as music producer Emmanuel appears to offer support. Intermingled with test results, doctor’s appointments, diets and alternative medicines, the choices taken reveal Martin’s life-long learning about her illness, achalasia. She frames these experiences and choices with neuroscience and silliness. As Emmanuel’s support transforms into disappointment and blame, the text carefully highlights a stigma surrounding health and illness. The implication that it is your choice, that you aren’t doing everything you can to fix it and that the solution is simple if only you would take it. As the narrative takes a turn, we are introduced to a new hero, Kai Keeling, who begins a new chapter of true love for Martin. The true champion of the work and of her own epic story however is our heroine, Femi Martin.
Featured image (top): Femi Martin. Photo by Benji Reid