JM Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K
Adaptation of J M Coetzee's novel by Lara Foot with The Handspring Puppet Company
Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Baxter Theatre
The nightmarish context to the life of Michael X is a violent civil war in South Africa of the 1970s–1980s in which both sides are harsh and dangerous. We get no sense of what that conflict is about, but it intensifies the difficulties faced by Michael and his mother, represented by two very distinctive puppets in this epic adaptation of the 1983 Booker Prize-winning novel by J M Coetzee.
Set in front of a grey, ruined building upon which at times is projected film footage of Michael walking, or close-ups of his distinctive face, the play opens with a group of what appear to be refugees arriving on the stage. One carries a rifle. A woman carries an orange cloth bundle. Inside that bundle is Michael X. An image of his face with its cleft lip is projected onto the back of the stage. A similar scene will end the show.
Between those moments, we see his birth, the way the cleft lip turns him into a bit of an outsider, his work as a gardener and the time he is called to help his sick mother.
Most of the performance centres on a journey that divides into two parts. In the first, he agrees to assist his sick mother to return to her childhood home near the town of Prince Albert on the Western Cape of South Africa. The first hurdle this poverty-stricken pair need to face is the requirement of a permit to move out of the area. They soon find that is going to take a long time. A bus depot also insists they would need to book seats months in advance.
Not to be defeated, Michael builds a trolley upon which rests a tin bath he can push the incredible distance to Prince Albert town. His mother initially laughs at the idea of sitting in the bath, but needs must, and collecting her life savings, they begin the journey. Those savings will be confiscated en route by corrupt police.
The second, longer section of the play follows his mother’s death when he takes her ashes to her home town. His travels will include time in a labour camp and a disturbing encounter with a band of guerrilla fighters who destroy his food and water supply.
The mood of the piece is lightened occasionally by the kindness of strangers, who give him food when he is starving and speak to him respectfully. The puppets, created by The Handspring Puppetry Company, previously responsible for the puppets of the NT’s War Horse, are always the centre of the story, but a cast of nine actors play various other parts.
Unsettling music, some very fine choreography of movement and dance, along with back projections of Michael X, contribute to this extraordinary production. The lyrical quality of selective elements of the novel’s narrative transfer easily to the stage.
The horrific injustice of South Africa’s apartheid regime is nowhere in the show. Instead, there is J M Coetzee’s Kafkaesque depiction of the way that country frighteningly distorted the lives of everybody who lived there.
This show must surely be one of the high points of the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna