JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Aug 25 2023 | By More

★★★★★    Astonishing

Assembly Hall (Venue 35): Thu 3 – Sun 27 Aug 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K at the Assembly Hall is a dramatic tour de force – a magnificent visual spectacle with genuine emotional range.

The Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town have an impressive history at the Fringe, with their most recent visit being 2017’s mighty The Fall. Here, in collaboration with Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and the Handspring Puppet Company, they have produced a literary adaptation that is utterly theatrical and completely compelling.

Life & Times of Michael K. Pic: Fiona MacPherson

Coetzee’s story of a man born with a cleft lip, shunned by many and regarded as simple, is set in a fictionalised version of late apartheid-era South Africa riven by civil war. Michael K (the name is surely an echo of Kafka) leaves his gardening job and attempts to push his mother in a home-made cart from Cape Town to where she claims she grew up, in farmland at Prince Albert near the Great Karoo.

Since he feels this is what has finally given his life purpose, he does not let the fact that she does not necessarily deserve his devotion deter him from his quest. Neither is he put off by the fact that she clearly does not have long to live.

Lara Foot’s adaptation is beautifully put together, and she directs it with storytelling flair and exemplary use of a wonderfully talented ensemble. The most striking element of a visually compelling show is the use of puppets from Handspring.

attention to detail

Handspring are best known for War Horse, but there are no monumental animals here – although there are a couple of birds and a remarkable goat. The humans are the focus – Michael and his mother are both represented by roughly 2/3 life-size puppets, designed by Adrian Kohler, directed by Kohler and Basil Jones and operated by Craig Leo with Roshina Ratnam, Markus Schabbing and members of the cast.

The puppets are not just operated with an astonishing attention to detail and are remarkably convincing, they also have a pathos to them that is quite stunning. In combination with images directed by Fiona McPherson and Barrett de Kock projected on to the ruined-building set of Patrick Curtis, they provide a visual power of a kind that is rarely achieved.

Life & Times of Michael K. Pic: Fiona MacPherson

This is helped by the human performers – Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Carlo Daniels, Billy Langa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe. At times they seem to move as one in an exemplary display of physical theatre, at other times they play a variety of roles effectively and with sympathy. There is real humour as well as real sadness, human warmth as well as cruelty on both an individual and an institutional scale.

At times the demands of telling the story threaten to move into the dreaded realm of telling rather than showing, but the way the narrative is shared out, and the way that all of the elements of the production are so wonderfully integrated, mean this never actually happens. The eloquent lighting of Joshua Cutts, Kyle Shepherd’s expressive music and Simon Kohler’s sound design also enhance the atmosphere.

exhilarating exploration

The story is told with such grace that is easy to follow, although it is demanding emotionally. In the end, however, it is an exhilarating exploration of theatrical and human possibilities, with the old stage paradox that an inanimate object in the right hands can be at least as expressive and universal as any living creature being proved once again.

As an exploration of nature, family and humanity, of the way we rule each other and how we rule ourselves, this has real power. It also has the apparent simplicity of purpose that only the most sophisticated and intelligently constructed theatre can bring.

Running time: Two hours (no interval)
Assembly Hall (Main Hall), Mound Place, EH1 2LU (Venue 35)
Thursday 3 – Sunday 27 August 2023
Daily at 12 noon
Tickets and details: Book here.

Baster Theatre links:


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Life & Times of Michael K. Pic: Fiona MacPherson



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