Life & Times of Michael K, Lara Foot’s stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, takes its audience on a remarkable journey. It’s soon apparent that this won’t be an easy ride, but the sensitivity and care employed in the telling of Michael’s story will pull you in and keep you captivated throughout the two-hour running time.
Set in the midst of a fictitious civil war in an alternate South Africa, the play grapples with the same fears, chaos, and madness emblematic of apartheid-era South Africa as experienced by Michael K, a poor labourer who decides to take his mother back to a home she hasn’t seen in many years. This exodus promises to culminate in a return to a paradise frozen in time and untouched by the ravages of city-dwellers, Michael and his mother’s current precarious existence, but, of course, that fairytale ending is not to be.
The accomplished cast includes Andrew Buckland, Carlo Daniels, Marty Kintu, Billy Langa, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Sandra Prinsloo, Roshina Ratnam, Faniswa Yisa, and puppet master Craig Leo. Unsurprisingly, Handspring Puppet Company’s creations are mesmerising.
Yes, Michael and his aged mother are portrayed by puppets voiced and controlled by the on-stage actors. What may at first seem an odd storytelling device when considering the themes involved turns out to lend fresh perspective and pathos to this tale of hardship and human perseverance.
It’s as if the puppets’ immovable expressions invite us to participate in the telling of the story by asking us to understand human nature and emotion in a new way. The effect is compelling from the start, where Michael’s birth is staged as a fluid series of movements punctuated by his mother’s determined cussing in defiance of her employer’s chiding stoicism. Later on, mother and son hit the road with the aid of a rickety tricked-out wheelbarrow in a scene filled with real life-affirming joy. Later still, Michael wrestles with a goat—underwater—in a breathtaking sequence that I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself still thinking about years from now.
As the protagonist makes his way from Cape Town through various towns and villages to Prince Albert (and beyond), it almost feels like there’s a bigger story that keeps threatening to break out—as if we’re tantalisingly close to finding out some higher truth, just as Michael fights to find out his reason for existing. But that’s just what life is, right? In any event, the suggestion of this mysterious sub-surface epiphany means that the play retains much of its novel-like essence. This is also evident in the piece’s exploration of the connection between body, earth, and landscape.
Life & Times of Michael K is strongly recommended, whether or not you’re familiar with the novel. The show will be on at The Pam Golding Theatre at The Baxter until 15 July 2023. Evening performances start at 7pm, with a Saturday matinee on 15 July 2023 at 2pm. Tickets are available through Webtickets.