I try not to read theatre reviews before I make sense of what I think and feel about a show because I fear distraction and dilution. After much head scratching in the few days since seeing the Life and Times of Michael K at the Baxter I started searching the internet for distraction and dilution, so intense was the experience.
When I couldn’t find any reviews I wasn’t that surprised. The adaptation of JM Coetzee’s novel by the Handspring Puppet Company and Lara Foot is riveting, evocative theatre suited to ululating, weeping and howling; not so much words.
It is an astonishingly beautiful multi-layered theatre experience that takes your breath away.
The idea of a fragile, brave boy-man with a cleft palate pulling his elderly mother through the Karoo on a cart he has cobbled together (with bits and bobs and an old wheelbarrow liberated from a shed at De Waal Park) hoping to get her to the farm where she was born so she can end her days there is harrowing enough.
Seeing the tale represented by a number of adults manipulating two extraordinarily life-like puppets on stage has a power, a beauty and an intensity that … well … um … you have to see to understand.
Somewhat heart-warming, very damn heart-wrenching and extremely rip-your-heart-of-your-chest-ing, this is very surreal theatre for these rather surreal times.
The production – an international partnership between The Baxter, Theater der Welt Düsseldorf 2020, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg – was originally commissioned to open at the prestigious Theater Der Welt festival in Düsseldorf in June 2020. That festival was cancelled twice, as was the planned run at Baxter in 2021. Finally it is on at the Baxter in March 2022.
By this time the pandemic seems to be receding but Russia has invaded Ukraine. Already feeling exhausted and raw after two years of Covid, South Africans are sickened by our leaders refusing to condemn Putin for his spiralling acts of barbarism against civilians of this nation that has fought a long, hard and dignified battle for freedom from tyranny. That this should be familiar to our own leadership magnifies the disgrace … but that is another story.
The truth is that despite all of this current horror, nothing leaves so bad a stench as apartheid. Its all-too-familiar legacy is laid bare in Life and Times of Michael K.
The mammoth undertaking of a show combines puppetry direction from Adrian Kholer and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company as well as performance, dance, film, sensational set design and a haunting musical score.
The formidable cast and creative team includes Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Fansiwa Yisa, Carlo Daniels and puppet master Craig Leo. Music is by the one and only Kyle Shepherd and set design is by Patrick Curtis. As I said, you have to see it to believe it.
At times, Michael K is too good, too powerful, too long, and now it is impossible to distil my thoughts into a cogent narrative. If I was a composer of music I might have a chance …
The show called for a level of courage that I didn’t feel I had on the night, battered as I was by the context of war and plague and a personal crisis. But … the million dollar question … Would I see it again? Hell yes, I think I have to see it at least one more time.