• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Fringe 2023: JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K

ByOlivia Fischer

Aug 6, 2023
Full human sized male puppet in foreground, actors and puppeteers behind.Craig Leo, Carlo Daniels in Life & Times of Michael K

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tony award-winning Handspring Puppet Company, who reached new heights last year with giant puppet, Little Amali, walking from the Turkish-Syrian border to Manchester, is at this year’s Fringe, in a co-production with the Baxter Theatre. For people who have been attending the Fringe for many years, they may recognize the South African Baxter Theatre from some of their previous productions such as The Fall in 2017 and MiesJulie in 2012, which both won Fringe First Awards. This stellar team has brought South African novelist JM Coetzee’s Man Booker Prize winning book, The Life and Times of Michael K, to the stage. 

Set during a fictitious civil war, the play follows the arduous journey of young man, Michael K, as he undertakes to bring his ailing mother back to her hometown. Over the course of the 250+ mile journey from Cape Town to Prince Albert, Michael K encounters many challenges, including his mother’s worsening condition, poverty, and the cruelty bred by a violent, corrupt policed state. The play begins with the gorgeous puppet of Michael K (made by Adrian Kohler and the Handspring Puppetry Company) being unwrapped from an orange blanket. The care and respect that the cast shows this puppet is immediately recognizable, and that shines throughout the show. 

Although the play could’ve afforded to be shortened a fair amount, the artistry of the ensemble is impeccable. The puppetry, led by puppet master Craig Leo, tickles the imagination, and reaches beyond what should be possible in theatre. There is a particular scene in which Michael K is trying to catch a goat in a body of water that suspended time in the theatre. The audience visibly held their breath as the cast worked seamlessly to create a feeling of both weightlessness underwater and panic above choppy waters. This scene is only one example of many where the storytelling through imagery surpasses the expectations of even the most regular of theatregoers. The performances of the ensemble are equally grounded and masterful, Carlo Daniels portrayal of Michael K is particularly beautiful.

The combined genius of the design and puppetry team creates a sublime visual narrative that makes up for most of what the script lacks. The soundscapes, composed by Kyle Shephard and sound designed by Simon Kohler, is perfectly pitched. The filmed projections ground the magical realism of the puppetry and add to the epic aesthetic of the piece. Unfortunately, the play lacks the dramatic action that can often happen when novels are adapted to plays, which makes it difficult for the ensemble to sustain a compelling play for the entire two-hour running time (which for Fringe is already quite long). The potential for meaty dialogue is missed due to the laborious narration and, unfortunately, this sometimes watered down the impact that some of the more powerful moments of puppetry. 

JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K is on at Assembly Hall, The Mound, from the 4 to the 27 of August at 12.00. Tickets available here: https://assemblyfestival.com/whats-on/jm-coetzees-life-times-of-michael-k

Image courtesy of Fiona McPherson, provided to The Student as press material.