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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Baxter Theatre Centre, South Africa

Genre: Drama, Puppetry, Theatre

Venue: .Assembly Hall


Low Down

The UK premiere of JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, adapted for the stage by Lara Foot.


The story of Michael K unfolds in front of us. It’s a very human story, about a humble being who says he was put on this earth to take care of his mother. Living in Cape Town during the 70s and 80s a rampant civil war and apartheid make his life very difficult. He needs a permit to move around but he can’t seem to get one yet he has to travel to the countryside with his elderly mother. These are dangerous and desperate times.

This story is based on Nobel Prize-winning author JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K,and is adapted for the stage and written and directed by Lara Foot, artistic director of the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company. Presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year,  a cast of several actors and a team of three puppeteers bring this show to life. The actors (Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Saniswa Visa, Carlo Daniels, Billy Lange, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe) play different characters in various scenes in the city, on Michael K’s journey and homecoming as well as narrate directly to the audience. They use physical characterization and storytelling techniques to relate to the audience to tell and show the story.

A highlight is the two large puppets that play the main characters, Michael K and his mother. At just over 1 metre tall they are rugged in outer look befitting the challenging lives they lead but sophisticated in their inner workings and careful recreating of human movement so they can move compellingly. The puppetry style is based on Japanese Bunraku puppetry where three puppeteers – led by puppet master Craig Leo, Rosina Ratnam and Markus Schabbing, with puppetry direction by Adrian Koehler and Basil Jones – share the manipulation of a large puppet, one working an arm, a second working the other arm and the head and a third mainly working the feet. The puppeteers are in full view and require huge sensitivity to physical movement. Their attention to detail of how a person breathes and transferring this subtle movement to a puppet is second to none. Foot and Handspring have created a masterpiece of theatrical storytelling through puppetry. Careful tilts of the head (precisely articulated at the head and neck) and shoulders when sitting or standing evoke authentic movement of human physicality.

There is also humour with pathos and irony in this play, especially when Michael K meets several young children, and they climb on him. Additional puppets in this play include children and birds, all beautifully created and performed.

The imaginative set and lighting design and use of projections and videos transform into different places very effectively and is a beautifully designed visual background that provides the perfect backdrop to the play.

One of the most effective techniques that Foot uses in her adaptation and directing is to allow each scene to breathe with the clarity of the storytelling allowing the characters to take their time settling in to each situation. The timing of this play, the seamless transitions from scene to scene really do unfold and transport us to the time and place conveyed in the play. The two hour
length with no intermission goes by and we have been enthralled in this utterly poignant, well crafted and performed story.

When a theatre production works in a unified way to support the story we are truly transported and this is one of those rare shows that does that. Foot and her creative team, Handspring and the cast have created an outstanding visceral and meaningful show – you may even shed a tear or two.

If you only see two or three shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe then make sure this show is one of them!