Fringe 2008, BATS Theatre
Feb 12-16 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

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.