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MATTERS OF OBSESSION

‘Life & Times of Michael K’ at the Baxter Theatre

Life and Times of Michael K. Image by Fiona McPherson

Premiering on 7 June 2021 is one of the Baxter’s most ambitious productions yet. A combination of live performance, puppetry, film and a haunting score, Lara Foot’s adaptation of JM Coetzee’s ‘Life and Times of Michael K’ is a marvellous world of its own.

The rehearsal room is packed with moving bodies; most of them are stretching and warming up their voices, their noise and laughter floating through the space. A few of them, however, are not breathing. Or not yet. In fact, they’re not even (technically) alive. 

In the back of the room there is a stand from which about six or seven puppets hang, their intricate features are made out of a light wood whose textures dip and swell as if it was nature that carved them into their human-esque shapes, not the dedicated hands of Basil Jones, puppet director and executive producer of the Handspring Puppet Company

The cast is preparing to rehearse a highly technical scene in Life and Times of Michael K, a Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (German) and Baxter Theatre co-production that will be showing in the main theatre at the Baxter centre from 7 to 19 June 2021. 

Image by Fiona McPherson

The play, adapted from the JM Coetzee novel by Lara Foot (CEO and artistic director of Baxter Theatre, as well as playwright and director), in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company (the creative geniuses behind War Horse) will feature a combination of live performance, puppetry and film. 

Back in the rehearsal room the heads of the puppets hang heavily on their chests, little hands limp at their sides. Their lifeless shells look almost like wet clothing hanging on a washing line, contrasting extraordinarily with the projection that is playing behind them: snippets of the film that will be a part of the final production. In the projection, the puppets are animated, the tortured expression of the harelipped Michael K (the production’s puppet protagonist) appears in various scenes, dynamic and malleable despite his features being literally carved and set into wood. 

Image by Fiona McPherson
Image by Fiona McPherson

The same exquisite (and somewhat jarring) animation of previously inanimate objects is experienced when the puppeteers pick up their instruments and begin to perform. Most are casually dressed in tracksuit pants and hoodies, and flow seamlessly from manipulating the puppets into live performance. Nothing about their actions or dress is a direct attempt to be invisible, and yet, when manoeuvring the puppets, they manage to disappear. Under the watchful eyes of Jones and Adrian Kholer (artistic director at Handspring Puppet Company) the puppeteers breathe an uncanny life into their little characters. 

And this is not just a figure of speech. 

According to Jones, puppeteers have to “learn to breathe the puppet, because all the movement of the puppet is based on breath. A person (or animal for that matter) breathes as they think and feel, so this breath varies in tempo and amplitude all the time. If you are breathing for the puppet, you are also feeling and thinking for the puppet.”

Life and Times of Michael K. Image by Fiona McPherson

It’s fascinating to think that the act of respiring, the very physical act that is keeping us alive from one moment to the next, is also the method through which a doll and human (puppet and manipulator) become one. A totally new life, a living (breathing) character is formed through the combination of human breath and a complex but lifeless wooden form. 

“Giving life to a human or animal figure is an act that traditionally only a god is entitled to,” Jones elaborates. “Thus, we vie with the gods when we try to create life. And indeed, when you bring a really well-designed puppet to life, think for it, feel for it, and use it, in turn, to capture the breath of an audience, this is a profoundly exciting, satisfying and even mystical experience.” 

Image by Fiona McPherson

This intensely creative process of life-building expands past the puppetry aspect and into the entirety of the production. Being privy to a rehearsal and watching the beginning stages of Life and Times of Michael K’s varied aspects come together, one gets the sense of witnessing the sculpting of an elaborate machine. Each facet that is layered upon the next is adding a new texture to the finished project, whose whole will be far more than the sum of its parts. 

The soothing clack of the wooden puppets as they move across the room adds an extra sonic element to the haunting score, composed by Kyle Shepherd. This is compounded with noises made by the actors and puppeteers themselves; the bleating of a goat, the crying of a baby, the sound of water as it sucks around and into the mouth of a half-drowning man. And behind it all, the video art adds a depth of dimension that makes the room feel infinite and wall-less; an entire world is being constructed inside the Baxter Theatre. 

Image by Fiona McPherson

On its website, the Baxter describes Life and Times of Michael K as “the largest and most illustrious undertaking by the theatre over the past decade”. 

And illustrious it is bound to be. Originally meant to debut at the prestigious Theater der Welt festival in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2020 (and delayed for obvious pandemic-related reasons), Life and Times of Michael K was never meant to show in South Africa at all. 

In a sort of twisted stroke of luck, a silver lining, if you will, the global pandemic has made it extremely hard for the South African members of the cast and crew to get to Germany. Because of this, the production will be seen live for the first time in UCT’s very own Baxter Theatre. While the disappointment of missing out on an exciting chance to travel and perform abroad, as well as the logistical nightmare of rescheduling, might have been rough on the production team, perhaps we can look at it from another, more positive perspective. This is a welcome surprise for South African audiences, who now have the opportunity to watch this world-class performance in a theatre near us. 

Image by Fiona McPherson
Image by Fiona McPherson

It seems almost fitting that the show, still featured in the Theater der Welt line-up, only online on 17 and 18 June, should take place in Cape Town for the first time. A major reason is that the story of Michael K is an intensely South African one.   

Originally penned by Coetzee, a darling of the South African literary scene (or as Kohler puts it, “one of the ‘Everests’ of South African contemporary literature”), Life and Times of Michael K follows the story of a poor coloured man who is at the mercy of various evil powers beyond his control. Born with a harelip, forsaken by his mother, and the victim of the harsh regulations and pressures of the apartheid regime, Michael K is ostracised in more ways than one.

Image by Fiona McPherson

In perfect step with the rich history of protest theatre in South Africa, this production tells a story of a man whose life is generally disregarded by the normative fabric of society. “It’s conceptually profound,” says Kohler. But it is also, in its haunting way, promising: “Michael is a hopeful character. He is a simple man whose main aim in life is to find a safe space to grow food. I think we can all respond to that.” 

Life and Times of Michael K’s premiere is a bright light in what feels like a dark era of South African theatre history. With the recent shutdown of the Fugard Theatre (“another icon” that “has fallen to Covid-19”, wrote Dr John Kani) and the Hilton Arts Festival hanging by a thread, it is surely heartening to see so much South African talent involved in this production.

Image by Fiona McPherson

The impressive team includes an almost entirely South African cast in Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, puppet master Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam, Carlo Daniels, Marty Kintu, Billy Langa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, with German puppeteer Markus Schabbing playing a central part and adding a transnational element to the production. 

And behind the scenes is just as impressive, with the Baxter’s own Lara Foot as writer, adaptor and director, working alongside Kohler and Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, South Africa’s first, and globally renowned puppeteering company. With the score composed by Shepherd, one of South Africa’s leading progressive pianists and composers, and the set designed by Patrick Curtis, multi-award-winning lighting and stage designer, Life and Times of Michael K promises to be an inclusive showcase of almost exclusively local talent.

Image by Fiona McPherson

What’s more, the pure energy of this creative talent is more tangible in a live theatre performance than any kind of virtual experience could encapsulate. 

Going to the theatre is a deft reminder of the power of physical presence. It’s about body language (whether the body be made of flesh or wood), about physicality and electric energy. It’s total immersion into action, the movement and noises of other bodies. There is nothing quite like the innately collaborative buzz of the rehearsal room, or the chaotic dynamism of pre-production preparation, the charged lull before the curtain up. It’s total kinetic immersion. 

Though the layers of Michael K’s world have yet to be put together and viewed in their final form, if Foot and team can pull off what they have planned to do, opening night on 7 June promises a very interesting show indeed. How lucky we might be to have it in our own backyard. DM/ML

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  • A most compelling tour de force. To be in the Baxter was to be mesmerized by the pure genius of author, puppeteers, director, cast, music, musicians, cinematographers, all giving to the saga of a son and mother in their journey of hope. A creative masterpiece that reduces watchers to stunned silence. Only one point to add- why did Michael K and mum not take a bow with the cast?

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