Playbill Pick: Life & Times of Michael K at Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe Playbill Pick: Life & Times of Michael K at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Members of Tony-winning Handspring Puppet Company deliver an emotional story of a man born with a cleft lip, and the trials he faces.

Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Craig Leo, Carlo Daniels, Roshina Ratnam and Andrew Buckland in The Life & Times of Michael K. Fiona McPherson

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!

As part of our Edinburgh Fringe coverage, Playbill is seeing a whole lotta shows—and we're sharing which ones you absolutely must see if you're only at the Fringe for a short amount of time. Consider these Playbill Picks a friendly, opinionated guide as you try to choose a show at the festival.

Assembly Hall sits at the top of a hill overlooking Edinburgh’s New Town neighborhood in the city center. And inside its Main Hall, Life & Times of Michael K transports its audiences to South Africa with a heart-tugging story. It's the kind of production that will haunt you for a long, long time.

Life & Times of Michael K is based on the Booker Prize-winning 1983 novel of the same name by J. M. Coetzee. Set during apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s, it is the story of a man who was born with a cleft lip. Growing up in institutions, eventually becoming a gardener in Cape Town, Michael is determined to take his sick mother back to her hometown. But the journey into the countryside, amidst a fictitious civil war, is dangerous—and the trials that await him beyond those he expected.

And Michael K is a puppet. This is a co-production from two-time Scotsman Fringe First winner The Baxter Theatre and Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. Tony-winning Handspring Puppet Company (War Horse) brings the story to life with subtle dexterity—emotionally, yes, but also physically. Some movements seemed infinitesimally small, but the realistic effect created a stage magic that had even the adults in the audience gasping with wonder. The nine puppeteers worked in precise coordination with each other. The movements so familiar that they seem instinctual, a foregone conclusion.

In addition to manipulating the puppets of Michael K, his mother, and a few children, the cast take on narrating and playing additional roles in the story. Their emotional performances had a type of confidence from practice that didn’t feel practiced.

It’s a hard story on the heart. Ostracized and othered by society his whole life, Michael K journeys into a world which feels all too real. Its tragedies are tempered by moments of joy and laughter that help release the pressure throughout the performance.

The story has some narrative jumps, however, that are not always immediately clear. Aiding the story along are projections on the back wall of the set—it added to the show at times, but other times felt unnecessary. But overall, there’s a reason this production has had runs across South Africa, Germany, Luxembourg, and Ireland. It tells a story of one man that illuminates both humanity’s tragic horrors and its beautiful joys. And it earned the standing ovation the Fringe crowd gave it, which was so sustained that the puppeteers took their bows three times.

Lara Foot created the stage adaptation. While the production makes its U.K. premiere at the festival, it’s incredibly easy to imagine it transferring Off-Broadway to the likes of St. Ann’s Warehouse or Park Avenue Armory. But before such a day hopefully arrives, it will continue pulling soft gasps and the occasional tear from Fringe-goers at Assembly Hall’s Main Hall through August 27.

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