DIANE DE BEER
JM COETZEE’S LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K
ADAPTED AND DIRECTED by Lara Foot
CAST: Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam, Carlo Daniels, Marty Kintu, Billy Langa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe with the Handspring Puppet Company
CO-PRODUCTION: Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (Germany) and Baxter Theatre
SET DESIGN: Patrick Curtis
LIGHTING DESIGN: Joshua Cutts
ORIGINAL MUSIC COMPOSITION: Kyle Shephard
DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM: Fiona McPherson and Barrett de Kock
VIDEOGRAPHY AND EDITING: Yoav Dagan
PROJECTION DESIGN: Kirsti Cumming
COSTUMES: Phyllis Midlane
SOUND DESIGN: Simon Kohler
VENUE: Baxter Theatre
DATES AND TIMES: 7pm nightly until 19 March with Saturday matinees at 2pm on 5, 12 and 19 March
It is quite astonishing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the backdrop on most minds, how the horror in JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K is amplified.
Written in 1983 in Coetzee’s sparse yet startling style, the story shines a powerful light on the life of a simple man, afflicted by a disfigurement, standing out without being someone, and being in the world not to engage, but rather flee from others.
That’s where he finds his freedom – in the wild, desolate landscape of a country that doesn’t want him and yet pursues him for crimes not committed or even imagined.
Both Michael K and his mother have lived honourable lives in service of others, he as a gardener and she as a domestic worker who lives under the stairs in an apartment block, like her son, unseen and unheard.
When she falls ill, with war raging around them, she turns to her son to take her “home”, there where she was born and raised, where she believes she once found happiness. And so their harrowing journey begins.
Because of where we find ourselves right now, and looking back through the history of these past 30 years, both nationally and internationally, Michael K’s story hasn’t changed. That’s why it is such a brilliant choice to herald what we are hoping beyond hope, might be better times.
There was a buzzy anticipation on opening night as people moved into the Baxter Theatre for the Lara Foot-adapted and -directed Life and Times of Michael K, a production cleverly staged with the Handspring Puppet Company in a multi-dimensional fashion including performance, film and music – all on a grand scale.
And with a magnificent set which constantly changes with moving as well as still images and lighting that astounds, we’re off into the story and running with the narrative from the start. It’s quite overwhelming as Michael K’s story is told from many different angles and voices with different landscapes as he goes on his long and winding journey. Visually it is spectacular and achieves a moving world that is both elaborate and evocative.
Telling the story, there’s an ensemble playing different characters; the physical Michael K, exquisitely crafted by the Handspring masters happily accompanied by his equally statured mother; the voices and puppeteers; as well as the film, which simply because of scale could be jarring at times rather than just slipping in and out of the narrative – yet all of these combined make it quite difficult to get to the beating heart of the story.
As the name suggests, this is Michael K’s story. While the character himself can be seen as an insignificant man, that is the point and what Coetzee hopes to uncover in his desolate and desperately haunting tale of a man who is struggling to find and cling to his freedom. Gardening is what moves his world, something that adds rather than detracts from our physical place on this earth.
But even that is not good enough. Somehow it is twisted into an act of terrorism as he is accused of feeding a guerrilla army. He is simply never allowed to be.
Coetzee’s descriptive and detailed telling of Michael K’s battle to survive on this arid land, the way he works with the earth to both feed the soil and his soul, nourishing his freedom, his sole means of survival, doesn’t quite have the impact on stage as it does on the page. The exquisite existential rendering which won Coetzee such applause is somehow missed.
His is a harsh world in which there is mistrust all round. Who is Michael K? Even though he is described as someone who cannot organise a dart game, he is still seen as a threat by those who feel they are in command and have to lead the way.
No one can be left to their own devices. And it is this stranglehold, a man’s desperate struggle to hold on to his freedom, that disappears under the weight of the production, one where the true horror of being Michael K struggles to break through.
Foot has thrown all her energy and skill into this one and there are many memorable moments to witness and remember. It is a worthy production that captures the zeitgeist – a time of pandemics and panicked, power-driven presidents.
What you don’t get is the bewilderment of a man who has found himself in a world that prohibits him from finding his own way and making a life unaffected by those around him. The only way he knows how to breathe and survive.
Thát is the life and times of Michael K.