Review: Life & Times of Michael K on stage – immersive magical realism- outstanding ensemble of actors and poignantly beautiful puppets by Handspring Puppet Company

What: Life & Times of Michael K- adapted by Lara Foot, for the stage, in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, from JM Coetzee’s Booker award winning book
When: February 28  to March 19, 2022
Where: Baxter Theatre, Cape Town
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Creative credits – scroll down to box  

Lara Foot, working in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, has transfigured JM Coetzee’s Booker award winning novel, Life & Times of Michael K, from page to stage, with her signature magical realism, which imbues this gruelling tale with a light touch which speaks of hope and resilience. This is an epically staged production, with poignantly beautiful puppets by Handspring Puppet Company, stirring original sound composition, striking visuals and evocative performances by Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Carlo Daniels, Billy Langa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe.

Life & Times of Michael K is theatre, woven with intense discomfit because of the journey of Michael K but through Foot’s adaptation and crackling script, there are moments of mirth which provide release and catharsis. We are invited to go on the peregrination with Michael K as he ventures on an unfathomable journey through a dystopian landscape of civil unrest. JM Coetzee published the book in 1983, with the narrative set in a fictitious civil war in South Africa. Watching Michael K’s story unfold now, in 2022, the narrative reverberates profoundly against what is occurring as Russia invades the Ukraine. We see displaced people, fleeing in a world gone mad. They are on the road, trying to find a route to somewhere; carting their babies, pets, possessions. Throughout the pandemic, we have witnessed the madness of the world – scenes and images of the ordeals of many people, around the globe; displaced by war, evil leaders, global warming, natural and human led disasters.

Life &Times of Michael K is sadly utterly relatable on a universal level. Michael K is a man who has always been displaced; shunted aside because he was born with a harelip. The background set design constantly reflects fractures and the fissures of his life – Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge, broken buildings, and cracked landscape, mirrors his harelip feature.  But that is who he is.  Rejected by his mother, he finds a happy place as a gardener, tending to the earth and nurturing growth. His life is upended when his mother falls ill and wants to return to the place of her birth and he is summoned to take her. She dies but his journey becomes increasingly Kafkaesque. He is a man who was always told what to do and he tells us that he has to now chart his own way. In the book, there was a relentless violation of Michael K – physically, emotionally and spiritually. However, he resists becoming a servant, a lackey. His core remains intact. No matter what, he will not succumb to his soul being colonised. He wants to be a gardener, tend the earth and celebrate new growth.

In Foot’s adaption, the positivity and resilience of Michael K is foregrounded and ultimately, the play ends in hope. Michael K wants to live on his own terms, watch things grow, nurture his spot in the landscape and be in tune with the earth. It says in the script that we will always need gardeners or the idea of gardeners.

The narration of the story and Foot’s excellent script ensures that the play is a standalone work. One does not need to have read the novel. The ensemble of actors work seamlessly with the puppets. They operate as a company. Handspring is famously known for creating the puppets for the National Theatre (UK) blockbuster hit production, War Horse. There, the huge puppet horses were dominant and the actors were small creatures, inside the puppets and on stage. In Michael K, the puppets and actors are vividly characterised. Michael K is not life size and I think that brings in an element of play: He is an object; not ‘real’ and we can contemplate him, because has been transmuted beyond the commonplace. On the other hand, through the emotional voicing of him as a protagonist, he is very ‘real’ and we are drawn into his visceral confusion, sadness, yearning.

It was an inspired choice to make Michael K as a puppet, as an object. The actors breathe life into him and he can be both – inanimate and animate.  As always, Handspring’s puppets are a joy to behold – with the revealing of armatures and carcasses of the puppets. We can see how they work and are manipulated by the puppeteers and yet they seem ‘real’. We suspend our disbelief and believe in them as humans. It is magical and that magic is key to this theatrical production, where Michael K must somehow transcends the schisms and ruptures in his landscape – our landscape. There are fabulous character impressions from Sandra Prinsloo. Watch out for her in the scene when Michael is born, as she heckles his mother to stop bleating about child birth. Prinsloo’s brings the house down as the young man Visagie, handing over a shopping list (includes Fanta), in the time of civil war and unrest. Foot’s dialogue elicits much needed laughs and Prinsloo, with her ear for accents and dialect, nails multiple protagonists. Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa and Carlo Daniels are all brilliant as they voice Michael K and the people he encounters, in his unfathomable journey.

Life & Times of Michael K is a co-production between Theater der Welt Festival, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, Baxter Theatre Centre and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg.  It is an incredible achievement that this play has reached the stage, against the backdrop of the worldwide pandemic of Covid and that we are finally able to see the production, on stage in South Africa. The production premiered in Germany. It is story of personal pain, with a lot to process. Interwoven with elements of play and magical realism, with the company of actors and puppets, this is immersive and gripping theatre. 

Life & Times of Michael K: Sandra Prinsloo, Faniswa Yisa, Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam. Photo: Fiona McPherson. Supplied.
Puppet play: Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Craig Leo, Carlo Daniels, Roshina Ratnam, Andrew Buckland in Life & Times of Michael K. Photo: Fiona McPherson. Supplied.
Life & Times of Michael K- creative credits- March 2022- Baxter Theatre, Cape Town

Director, writer adaptor: Lara Foot
Adaptors, puppet directors, design and makers: Handspring Puppet Company
Producers: Co-production between Theater der Welt Festival, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, Baxter Theatre Centre and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg


Actors: Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Carlo Daniels, Billy Langa, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe
Puppet master: Craig Leo
Puppeteers: Roshina Ratnam and Marty Kintu  
Puppetry direction: Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones
Puppetry direction, design and creation: Adrian Kohler, Handspring Puppet Company
Dramaturg: Felicitas Zürcher
Composer: Kyle Shephard
Set designer: Patrick Curtis
Costume designer: Phyllis Midlane
Lighting designer: Joshua Cutts
Sound designer: Simon Kohler
Sound system designer: David Claassen
Projection designer and editor: Yoav Dagan
Projection designer: Kirsti Cumming
Director of photography (film), photographer: Fiona McPherson
Director of photography: Barrett De Kock  

✳ Featured image: Life & Times of Michael K: Craig Leo, Carlo Daniels in Life & Times of Michael K. Photo:  Fiona McPherson. Supplied.