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Thinking puppets amid apartheid South Africa

Thinking puppets amid apartheid South Africa

1 by Sarita RAO 4 min. 20.05.2022
Masterful puppetry behind the “Life and Times of Michael K” tells a story of survival and perseverance
A story of disenfranchisement and destitution set in South Africa
A story of disenfranchisement and destitution set in South Africa
Photo credit: Grand Théâtre

A play with narrators and puppets sounds like something you might take the family to, but this one definitely isn’t. 

The “Life and Times of Michael K" is a harrowing tale of a man born with a cleft lip surviving in apartheid South Africa during a time of civil unrest and martial law.

Based on the novel by Nobel prize-winning author JM Coetzee which won the Booker Prize in 1983, the play explores the relationship between a mother and her son, the value of life, the role of race in South African society, and the effects of war and unrest on everyday people.

Michael barely survives infanthood. His single mother works as a cleaner for a rich family and they live in a windowless room originally designed for an air conditioning unit.

Mocked by his peers and unable to get a decent education, he leads a simple life as a gardener. A single attempt to break out of this existence by working a night shift as an attendant for public toilets ends with him brutally attacked, so he returns to his job at parks and gardens.

Then his mother gets sick and wants to spend her final days at a farm of which she has fond childhood memories. Unable to secure train tickets without a permit to travel, Michael decides to take her there on his own by building a contraption from wheels and bathtubs. Then the two set off through a country shaken by civil war.

Why puppets?

And the puppets? As a friend points out, how else would you be able to perform this, since Michael’s cleft lip is a very big part of the story? But there is more to it.

Michael and his mother are both puppets, supported by puppeteers – three in Michael’s case, one of which also voices the character. The movements of these puppets are so fluid and lifelike that you’d think they were real people if it weren’t for the others on stage and the fact that the puppets are slightly smaller than usual human size.  Their every gesture in the way they walk, sleep and move has been thoughtfully planned and carefully executed by the puppeteers and cast. 

Puppets also play a host of other characters, from small children that Michael meets and befriends at a work camp to a goat that Michael duels with and finally kills.

Masterful puppetry, you soon forget the puppeteers
Masterful puppetry, you soon forget the puppeteers
Photo: Grand Théâtre

At first you notice the puppeteers and it feels somewhat odd, but somewhere in the first half of the play you forget they exist.

The stage is simple, with the backdrop of the shell of a house with crumbling walls. Sometimes it is the city of Cape Town, at other times the farm which Michael eventually reaches. The collapsing house also is cleverly used as a backdrop for film projection, showing the puppet Michael at the park or in the desert after fleeing the farm.

Oddly life-affirming

It could be quite a depressing story. Michael is robbed and abused on his journey. His mother’s life savings are stolen and she dies in a hospital and is cremated before Michael can see her. At various points, without a permit, Michael is forced to work on the railroad, stay at a work camp or accused of helping rebel forces.  He is disenfranchised and at various times also destitute.

Yet in a strange way it is very life affirming. Against all odds, a child, and then a man whom society tells us should not survive, continues to strive, fuelled by his profound connection to the earth.

Michael does not give up or give in to the authorities who tell him he should be grateful for a place in a camp with food and shelter. Time and time again, he returns to the farm and starts to grow pumpkins.

Each time he is thwarted, first by the errant grandson of the absent farm-owner, then by police searching for rebels. And still he continues, driven by some inexplicable life force, the same one that undoubtedly fuelled his survival as a baby gulping water from a spoon.

The adaptation is by Lara Foot, who has written her own award-winning plays on hard-hitting issues and who works from Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre. The puppetry is created and performed by the Handspring Puppet Company.

How this team works together so effortlessly to create such life-like movements in the puppets is astounding. This is puppetry on a level with the long-running London theatre hit “War Horse,” which featured a life-sized puppet horse. Or as the puppet company says about itself, these are “thinking puppets”.

The cast of narrators, the voices of Michael and his mother and the characters they meet speak in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa (subtitles in German). The few objects on the stage are moved to recreate a hospital, a farm, a work camp or a tiny room. The team acts in synchronised unison, recreating a blustery day or the flow of a river.

It’s a very different and memorable performance, which tackles so many themes from race to humanity and the basic need to nurture and be nurtured.

The “Life and Times of Michael K” will be performed again at the Grand Théâtre at 20.00 tonight (20 May).

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