Assembly Hall – Main Hall
If I could give Baxter Theatre‘s JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K six stars I would. Following this deeply moving, articulate production I left the Assembly Hall a complete blubbing wreck, having been on an emotional, torturous journey across South Africa with Michael, who is in reality only an inanimate object.
This wonderfully sympathetic adaptation of the novel by Lara Foot draws on a host of South African talent, from Coetzee himself, to a collection of stunning performers and puppeteers. Directed flawlessly by Foot, it retains the book’s simple eloquence, but enhances it through energetic storytelling and superb visuals. At the core is the incredible talent of Handspring Puppet Company.
Michael K, born facially disfigured, with a hare lip, is always just on the edge of the social norm. He’s not normal, but through him we learn to question what normality is – or should be. In a land overrun with violence and war, his is a very human tale, as he attempts to take his dying mother back to the idyllic farm where she grew up. Sadly she dies before they arrive, so it is her ashes he carries and spreads in the soil. He encounters repeated institutionalised brutality, and resiliently battles against it. The play offers parallels with Kafka’s Joseph K from The Trial – most obviously in the protagonist’s name, but also in showing the cyclical nature of inexplicable authoritarianism. Throughout, Michael retains his humanity by quiet non-compliance. He is a resourceful gardener seeking nourishment and growth, wishing to share it.
The choice to use puppetry to tell the story, particularly with Handspring’s style of open-work puppets, is exceptionally suitable. Considerations of humanity are given clarity by endowing non-living objects with human qualities, to examine them. The puppets are beautifully made, and performed meticulously by a team of superb actor/puppeteers. Michael’s disfigurement, difficult to portray with make-up on an actor, is ever-present, and a constant reminder that he is unlike most people. He may be considered ugly as a human, but this puppet’s eyes sparkle with pure light and life in a way the human characters don’t share. The audience also becomes an active element in the object’s transformation to life, as our imagination is an essential requirement to fill out the partially complete figures. We become integral to the action. This is also a very funny play, with frequent, humorous acknowledgments that human manipulators are present behind the puppets’ performances, adding an extra dimension to the narratives of control and collaboration. The objects’ animation creates a space of possibility, generating soul, humour and anguish, which is lacking in many of the human characters. They show our world could be imagined differently.
The performance is beautifully enhanced by subtle, evocative lighting design, and notably with the use of enormous projections, which give detail and context to the long journey across the South African landscape. A simple but flexible set is imaginatively reconfigured to guide us from city to country and even underwater. And the fabulous music subtly draws us in, giving a sense of South Africa, of the open Veld, and, wonderfully humorously, of Michael’s playful side.
This is an incredibly timely play for our planet undergoing ecological crises, when we’ve emerged from a pandemic where enforced distance from nature led us to better understand the human need to relate with it. Perhaps we should question why we still haven’t learned to nourish both the natural and the human world we share? In Michael K’s theatrical space of imagination, we are shown that we should keep trying, and that anything can become possible if we persist.
Written and directed by: Lara Foot
Puppetry Direction by: Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones
Puppetry Direction, Design and Creation by: Adrian Kohler, Handspring Puppet Company
Composed by: Kyle Shephard
Set Design by: Patrick Curtis
Costume Design by: Phyllis Midlane
Lighting Design by: Joshua Cutts
Sound Design by: Simon Kohler
Sound System Design by: David Claassen
Projection Design and Editing by: Yoav Dagan
Projection Design by: Kirsti Cumming
JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K runs at EdFringe, Assembly Hall – Main Hall until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.
You can read more about the production in our recent interview with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.