The Beckoning of Hope

BATS Theatre, Wellington

12/02/2008 - 16/02/2008

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

Production Details

Written by Michael Burton and adapted for solo actor by Marjorie McKee
Directed by Andrew McKenzie from an original concept by L’hibou Hornung

Two women, love, the resonance of history, power, politics and giving the audience a potent insight into poetry’s awesome power to bring rebirth and hope.

The Beckoning of Hope is a compelling solo show about self discovery and redemption, featuring poetry and a cello.

After years of running away from an overwhelming grief, Becky returns home to New Zealand where she discovers a strong connection with an elderly Russian woman, Nadezhda, the widow of the great poet Osip Mandelshtam who died in the Stalinist purges.

Nadezhda wrote two books concerning their life together – reliving the grim savagery of Stalin’s Russia, expressing within Osip’s brilliant Russian poetry oppression, endurance and ultimately survival.

Through the voice that speaks in Nadezhda’s writings, Osip’s poetry, and eventually inside her own psyche Becky is able to step back into her world again. Whilst the play engages with this deeply personal exploration, it also raises many political questions about our past present and future.

The Beckoning of Hope is an impassioned, sometimes stark, empowering and finally hopeful play not to be missed.

Performed by Marjorie McKee (Lovers of Central Park) with musician Sebastian Morgan-Lynch (Fat Freddy’s Drop, Verona).

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

BATS Theatre: 12 to 16 February 2008
Cost: $16/13/10

Revised and reworked, performed by Marjorie McKee, actor, with Rachel Marlow, lighting and sound.

Arts on Wednesday

Massey Auditorium, Massey University: 30 July 2008

Nadezhda / Becky - Marjorie McKee
Cellist and composer - Sebastian Morgan-Lynch

Set design - Kate Logan
Lighting design, and technical operator - Rachel Marlow
Stage Manager - Steve Wakeem, Vince Jennings
Production manager - Barry Lakeman

Publicist - Brianne Kerr
Producer, graphic design - Marjorie McKee
Photography - Stephen A'Court
Web design and sound engineering - Leigh Harrison

1 hr 15 mins, no interval

Committed performance cannot make flawed play gel

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

The Beckoning of Hope at Bats theatre looks at the life of the wife of exiled Russian Poet Osip Mandelshtam and the Stalin regime.  Michael Burton’s play has been adapted for a solo actor by Marjorie McKee, so I’m not sure whether it’s the original concept or the adaptation that’s the problem here. 

You hear from Nadezhda, the wife who preserved her husband’s poetry and memory during the long hard years of the revolution. The other character is a contemporary woman with writer’s block who apparently channels Nadezhda.  This is where things come off the rails, with the nicely controlled performance as the older woman thrown into untidy contrast to the hyped up Becky. 

Towards the end, when Nadezhda berates Becky endlessly for all the world’s ills, is dreary, and we never know enough of Becky (despite tediously long one sided phone calls) to care about her.  McKee gives a committed performance but can’t make it gel.


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A beautiful testament

Review by Diane Spodarek 28th Feb 2008

A play in four movements. A solo performance with live accompaniment on cello by Sebastian Morgan-Lynch, directed by Andrew McKenzie from an original concept by L’hibou Hornung.

Phew, so many names for a solo show. That is theatre. A solo show is never a solo show. Marjorie McKee embodied two characters: Nadezhda Mandelshtam, widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam and Becky, a “Western” woman; “a stupid Western Woman,” as Nadezhda refers to her in a voice over, admonishing her attempts to write anything worth while since she will never be able to come of anything because she and her country has not suffered enough. But she has, for who can know how much any one person suffers, it is not for others to judge. Toward the end Becky writes her poem on the floor in chalk white, a beautiful testament to her belief in herself, she is enough.

McKee played each character throughout the performance, individually and with strong conviction to living a full life and writing; both women struggle with memory, their writing, and the men, both real and some perhaps imagined. One director’s choice of Nadezhda moving down stage placing her husband’s poetry on the floor as she moved towards us, blessing it with water from a crystal bowl was very engaging. Marjorie McKee can probably play any role, her performance was simply flawless.

Originally published on


Be seduced by its call

Review by Kate Blackhurst 17th Feb 2008

WHEN THE audience enters the theatre, they find Marjorie McKee writing on pieces of paper before screwing them up and hurling them away in disgust. She is Becky, a New Zealander who has returned from a round-the-world trip and is struggling with her creativity. She crosses the stage, wraps a shawl around her head, and she is Nadezhda, the Russian widow of the great poet, Osip Mandelshtam, killed when his poetry fell foul of the Stalinist regime.

McKee plays both characters with consummate skill. Her evasive laughter and unfinished answers on the telephone characterise Becky as restless and uncertain. Her calm narration and rich steady Russian accent lends Nadezhda gravitas and grace. Her long black culottes double as widow’s weeds and a smart modern dress outfit. The audience questions their relation to each other (it seems Becky encountered Nadezhda on her travels and formed an instant connection) and more explanation of this would have clarified the point.

All is underscored by the gorgeous improvised cello music of Sebastian Morgan-Lynch who sits above the stage like a Greek chorus highlighting the tragic moments.

McKee’s sonorous voice and precise diction does justice to the beautiful language ‘like a great tide of words sweeping over me’. She talks calmly of seeing women with red hair torn limb from limb, how her students swathed in lies and suspicions would willingly turn her in, and how she stood in line with the other women whose husbands were imprisoned to pass them food parcels they may never receive.

She explains how faces have become masks and everyone is afraid to denounce the Emperor’s new clothes – it must be done at exactly the right moment and her husband was premature. Her words conjure the terror which ‘came in waves and was planned like the economy’. Andrew McKenzie’s direction is masterfully tight, maximizing a few props; a suitcase full of books which is emptied as ‘poetry, ideas, love, compassion are thrown overboard from the steamship of modernity’, and a cardboard box which represents a writing desk and a torture chamber.

Nadezhda had to conceal her husband’s verses in saucepans and sew them into pillowcases. She recites his final fatal poem and in a quasi-religious ceremony, places the pages across the stage like the pebbles or breadcrumbs to lead the lost out of the forest; Orpheus out of the underworld; stepping stones; a bridge. ‘Poetry brings people back to life’. The lighting is simple and subdued throughout but comes into its own in this sequence as it illuminates the set to resemble a church.

She argues with Becky that the modern diet exists on spiritual junk food and instructs her that, ‘When your nation has suffered the pain of ours, you may produce a decent poet.’ Becky fires back that Russians don’t have a monopoly on poetry, and she scrawls her own verses in chalk on the matt blackboard floor. The words, ‘Things must get very bad for people to comprehend that poetry is power’ light up the gloom in a highly potent metaphor. There may be power in guns and oppression, but there is also power in words. When she whispers, ‘I am just me and that is enough’ it is a plaintive moment that echoes the insecurity of every would-be artiste who fears they have not suffered enough.

While McKee holds the audience spellbound and silent, the cello heightens the senses. If this is a political drama with a message about the responsibility of the artist/ performer, Jawbone Co-operative has more than done its duty. There is hope. Nadezhda means hope in Russian, and this is the beckoning of hope. Be seduced by its call.

[Reprinted courtesy of The Lumière Reader]


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From Russia, a sermon

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Feb 2008

Burton’s The Beckoning of Hope is about literature being the springboard out of the spiritual wilderness of the present just as it was for Nadezhda Mandelstam and her husband, the famous poet Osip who died in Siberia in 1938 after rather naively writing a mildly seditious poem about Stalin. Nadezhda survived and went on to write in the 1960s two famous books: Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned, which put her, Clive James wrote, at the centre of the whole of twentieth-century literary and political history.

Marjorie McKee plays both Nadezhda and a modern woman called Becky who seems to be having some sort of mid-life crisis and Osip’s poems and Nadezhda’s writings save the day to the extent that Becky hears Nadezhda talking to her and telling her that the modern world is a spiritual wilderness and that it is time to take on the challenges facing us all before it is too late.

Unfortunately, the play lacks any dramatic tension and in the end is really just a worthy sermon castigating us all, the ravenous materialistic consumers, who are destroying the world’s resources just as the old time preachers castigated the sins of the flesh. Marjorie McKee plays Nadezhda with great sincerity. She is accompanied tactfully and at times beautifully by the cellist Sebastian Morgan-Lynch.


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Great sincerity

Review by John Smythe 14th Feb 2008

I take it a pun is intended in the title The Beckoning of Hope, given Becky is one of the two women Marjorie McKee plays in her adaptation for solo actor of Michael Burton’s play, It is Not Permitted to Hope (which draws in turn from two memoirs written by Nadezhda Mandelshtam, the widow of the great exiled Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, entitled Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, about the moral and social degradation of Soviet Russia under Stalin).

The hope Becky is hanging out for, after years of travelling abroad to escape herself and her roots, is that she will find inspiration to write poetry again. As the audience arrive, Becky is sitting at a packing case amid her baggage trying to write, and screwing up her hopeless results … One of a number of clichés that will dilute the occasional potency of the play.

Phone calls reveal Becky – endowed with a compelling presence by McKee – has returned from an equally clichéd sojourn in Italy (including an affair with "Claudio, build like a God") and is hiding away in a friend’s holiday home, seeking her lost muse and avoiding the beckoning of social invitations that could distract her …

Her cathartic confrontation with the meaning of life and everything comes via Nadezhda, also played by McKee with a beautifully centred composure deeply rooted in decades of suffering, the like of which Becky has never known. It’s the story of Nadezhda and Osip that reveals the power of poetry: if it had no power, why would the State be so scared of it and so determined to repress it? 

Accompanied by Sebastian Morgan-Lynch’s cello-playing, the sequences sourced from Nadezhda’s writings stand proud with a strength born of hardship that makes them, and her, inviolate. The erosion of freedom and slide into a state of chronic fear are palpable in her account, and at least some of her clichés – e.g. being cogs in a machine – have the virtue of having been relatively fresh metaphors when she wrote them. Others – like having to smile and hide your true feelings as if behind a mask; like what it takes to be the boy whole actually says the Emperor has no clothes – remain common to the human condition at many levels.

The resilience of the human spirit, the determination not to capitulate and the confrontation we in the audience have with our own capacity to face such things certainly makes for powerful theatre.

By comparison Becky, whose apparent lack of engagement with an immediate family or participation in the workforce, despite her financial capacity to travel the world, is never mentioned, unless I missed something, has little to offer of interest dramatically (no wonder she has writer’s block). Yet McKee does manage to imbue her moment of breakthrough – when she suddenly writes: "Things must get very bad for people to comprehend that poetry is power" – as a real ‘Road to Damascus’ experience.

When Becky wonders what Nadezhda would think of it, she gets a diatribe in response: "New Zealand has not suffered enough to produce a great poet … Your day of reckoning will come … You think in clichés … Poetry was our daily bread … I have suffered three hundred times more …"

Of course I disagree with the notion that the past histories, present concerns and future aspirations of people who live in these isles we call home are insufficient to generate good poetry or drama. Every dimension of human experience has been discovered here and will be again, as may of our artists in every field may testify. It may, however, be true that this privileged Becky has not been privy to much of it, except as a tourist on the outside looking in.

Given the promo material has promised ‘redemption’ too, I suppose that comes with Becky deciding she is just fine the way she is. Whether that means more poetry will flow, I cannot say. Personally I don’t think she has achieved much wisdom. Feeding off the misfortunes of others, feeling guilty for not having suffered enough and wishing trauma on herself and her country (is this the hope she beckons for us?), so that her creative juices may flow, is not what I’d call enlightened.

Director Andrew McKenzie, working from an original concept by L’hibou Hornung and aided by simply excellent set and lighting designs from Kate Logan and Rachel Marlow respectively, orchestrated the action and the transitions well, utilising the cases, book,, pages of poetry and a glass bowl to memorable effect.

The blessing Marjorie/Becky/Nadezhda offers us at the end sounds exotic in Russian and could seem like another cliché in English translation if it weren’t for McKee’s great sincerity.


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