Review: JM Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K

A moving adaptation of JM Coetzee’s masterpiece

theatre review (edinburgh) | Read in About 2 minutes
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JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K
Photo by Fiona McPherson
Published 08 Aug 2023

Presenting a theatrical adaptation of JM Coetzee's 1983 Booker Prize-winning novel, Baxter Theatre fluidly fold puppetry and film into this performance. The protagonist, Michael K, is a gardener and also a simple man. His innocence is due to an innate slow-wittedness or a lack of play with other children when a boy (his mother held him back because of her own discomfort with his cleft lip – fearing the snide remarks it might attract).

Now, as K's mother's health fails in her old age, he honours a wish to find her childhood farm. And so they trek through a South Africa blighted by civil war. K's simplicity gives him a limited understanding of the conflict. Filtered through his mind, the war takes on a Kafkaesque quality – the initial of his surname a direct literary allusion. His modest desires and tenacity throughout the perilous journey compel us to empathise with his otherworldly perspective. The puppet representing K artfully reveals his emaciated figure, showing both his constant hunger and the wiry strength of his personality. The use of film to depict his traversal of the landscape establishes the vital link between him and the natural environment.

The play's pacing does falter – certain narrative points are redundantly explained by the actors, despite us grasping the visual clues. Yet the production creatively captures episodic moments of Coetzee's novel, such as K's efforts to hunt and grow food – the performers guiding the puppets with grace and understanding. In another key scene there's a confident pause; a long silence that seemingly plays a discordant note, portraying the first shock of grief, deepening our connection to the character.