JM Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K

Puppetry arguably reached a new level of realism and sophistication with War Horse. The Handspring Puppet Company was the team behind that production and also the remarkable Little Amal-fame. Now they are at the Edinburgh Fringe with another stunning demonstration of the power of puppetry

A production of operatic proportions that provides a stimulating blend of multi-media

Baxter Theatre’s production of JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K has been created in collaboration with Handspring and Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and adapted for the stage by Baxter’s Artistic Director Lara Foot who also directs the work. The widely acclaimed novel, from which it is taken, set during the 1970s-80s apartheid era in South Africa won the 1983 Booker Prize. It’s a simple yet captivating story told with great clarity and emotional strength.

The eponymous male is a humble, unassuming individual whose life was marred from birth by having a cleft lip. It made him an outcast and the butt of jokes. He obtains a job as a gardener, but soon the country finds itself thrown into civil war and martial law is imposed. Concurrently, Michael's beloved mother is taken ill. He decides to quit his job, leave the city and embark on a journey to take his mother back to here to the farm of her birthplace in the town of Prince Albert.

His travels prove difficult and the long story captures the difficulties so many experienced in South Africa during that period, even though the war is a fictional event. He suffers the bureaucracy of obtaining permits, arrests, detentions, forced labour, the death of his mother, mental breakdown, pillaging of his land by rebels and many other setbacks in his life. It’s a protracted tale of misfortune and although the show has been reduced over the years to a running time of around two hours it still feels laboured at times, especially when the initial thrill of the puppetry has worn off.

But that thrill is quite exceptional. In the hands of Puppet Master Craig Leo and Puppeteers Roshina Ratnam and Markus Schabbing, manipulating Michael and his mother evoke emotional responses that would be a credit to any actor. The use of film close-ups reveals the pain and sadness on their faces and the skill of their manipulators is astounding, going way beyond the art of walking to the complex manoeuvering of mother into a bathtub on a cart and the stirring of ingredients in a bowl.

Patrick Curtis’s grand-scale set creates the mood and locations for the story and is well-suited to the expanse of the Assembly Main Hall, enhanced by evocative sounds and music from composer Kyle Shephard and Sound Designer Simon Kohler.

Together the creatives and cast have ensured a production of operatic proportions that provides a stimulating blend of multi-media to tell a moving tale.

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Performances

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The Blurb

The Baxter (two-time Scotsman Fringe First winners) in collaboration with Tony Award-winning Handspring Puppet Company (of War Horse and Little Amal fame) are at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Assembly Hall! The UK premiere of JM Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K, adapted for the stage by Lara Foot. A Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (Germany) and Baxter Theatre co-production.

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