Life & Times of Michael K – The Black Box Theatre, Galway

Reviewer: Tricia O’Beirne

Writer: J.M. Coetzee

Adapted by: Lara Foot

Director: Lara Foot

The generic sounds of war can be heard as figures run on stage, clearly fleeing gunfire, one of them holding a crumpled orange cloth seemingly containing a body. As she lays the cloth on the stage and the actors gather to open its folds, Michael K is first revealed to our gaze. He makes a poignant figure, thin, small and unmoving. He is then scoped up again and the set rearranges so that Michael may begin his perilous and epic journey through birth, childhood, and ultimately across a war-torn South Africa, to seek a home for his mother and himself. Handspring Puppet Company, a South African-based theatre company, and Director Lara Foot bring their adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker Prize winning novel to the stage for the Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF). The Black Box venue has a copious stage, and it is presented simply here as the play opens: the distressed facade of a house to the back, with broken walls to the sides.

Michael K is a puppet, as is his mother Anna K and they command the service of three puppeteers each, in order to move, run, give birth (Anna), scratch legs and belly (also Anna) and play with even smaller puppet children (Michael). Michael is not so successful at eating and when presented with a chicken roll, he must assign the actual food processing to his three movers. The mingling of the bodies of puppet and puppeteers is wonderful, the puppeteers are playful and protective of their charges; there is no attempt to obscure the mechanics of the puppets and occasionally, as with the chicken roll, there is interaction between puppet and puppeteers. This levity is welcome, as Michael’s story is unrelentingly sad, hard, and cruel.

Michael is born with a cleft palate and even his mother shuns him initially; he is called names – rabbit-face being one particular slur – and bullied as a child, while poverty and war blight his life from the start. When his mother can no longer carry out her work as a domestic servant in the seaside suburbs of Cape Town, the two decide to embark on a journey to return Anna to the place she remembers with great fondness from childhood: where she picked chicken’s eggs from under bushes and ate goat meat which tasted like butter. There is incredible attention to detail in the creation of Michael and Anna’s vehicle – at one point a tiny version of the pair and their ‘wheelbarrow cart’ is brought on stage, backdropped against projected images of endless roads and rail tracks. At other times Michael or his mother’s faces are shown in close-up projection onto the set wall; these puppets are not pretty; they are rough-hewn and tragic.

Life and Times of Michael K is innovative and it charms, despite the grim subject matter. There is much to ponder once the play ends and Michael is once again carried off stage wrapped in a cloth. The company are sure-footed and there is something very touching in the way they interact with the puppets; it is that relationship rather than artifice that brings the puppets to life on stage. The play stages the impact of war, particularly on the vulnerable in society, and is analogous of any and every conflict.

Runs Until 30th July 2023.

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