THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K is a strikingly presented play, directed by Lara Foot, currently on stage at the Baxter Theatre.
This is Lara Foot’s stage adaptation of JM Coetzee’s celebrated book by the same name and shares with the audience the personal experience of a modest, good-hearted man trying to find his way in a war zone: A civil war is tearing through the land, as Michael K is confronted with the reality of the fragility of life and the importance of the fight for self-determination. The play is driven by his search for purpose and identity (other than the one others impose on him).
When you first meet Michael K he is alive, but barely living. Then he puts all of his being into getting his sick mother to her childhood home. This journey does not unfold as he hoped and he is brought face-to-face with brutality in different forms. This reawakens in Michael K his need to embrace his life as the gardener who cultivates and nurtures regardless of where he finds himself at any given time.
This is a sad tale, and it does not profess to be anything else. Considering what is currently happening in the world, the sadness that rings through this human interest story, perhaps echoes a bit louder than was anticipated when this production made its debut at the Düsseldorf Theatre, Germany, in June 2021. If it wasn’t for the subtle moments of comedy woven throughout, the sadness of this play may become too heavy. Luckily, those moments allow the piece and the audience an opportunity to exhale.
Is it relevant? Yes, definitely. Is it an easy watch? At times, no –I was particularly traumatised by some scenes, but that is perhaps evidence of the impact of the play. Is it worth the ticket price? Yes, it’s a sleek production with a talented cast.
The cast (Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Carlo Daniels, Billy Langa, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam and Marty Kintu) work beautiful as a collective, with no one performer stealing the spotlight, but rather respectfully sharing it in pursuit of the narrative. The puppetry is masterful, and brings with it heightened symbolism in the choice of characters portrayed by puppets as opposed to those that are purely actor driven. The interaction between the performers and the puppets (the creations of Handspring Puppet Company) are so natural that the humanity it celebrates is the dream that Michael K pursues. One such small moment is the sharing of a pie between the puppet and his puppeteers – so much meaning captured in an ‘incidental’ act.
The music and the soundscape, by Kyle Shepard and Simon Kohler respectively, is exquisite in the way it moves you without being overly manipulative on an emotional level: It nudges you suggestively instead of insistently ‘telling’ you what to feel. It’s masterfully done.
The production has a clear vision and voice. Ultimately, the play demonstrates that you don’t have to live big to make an impact (however momentarily that may be), but what is important is that you live with purpose, dignity and conviction.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K, a Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (Germany) and Baxter Theatre co-production, is onstage at the Baxter until 19 March 2022. Tickets are available online through Webtickets and Covid protocols apply.