Live storytelling: The Life & Times of Michael K

The Life & Times of Michael K, written by J.M. Coatzee and told and performed by Norwich’s own The Story Machine, was not your usual play. In fact, it wasn’t really a play at all; it was a celebration of storytelling.

First of all, let’s talk about The Story Machine. Debuting in 2016 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, The Story Machine offered a new immersive and interactive literary experience. “Powered by literature and oiled by theatre”, as the National Centre for Writing’s website says, The Story Machine seeks to recreate the experience of reading a story, but on stage.

The Story Machine’s newest project is J.M. Coatzee’s The Life & Times of Michael K. Michael K, known as just ‘K’, grows up in poverty in South Africa during a fictitious civil war in the 1970s and 80s. Born with a cleft lip, K is constantly treated as a lesser human being; the value of human life being a major theme of the novel. K works as a gardener until his mother unexpectantly dies – then, he undertakes a journey to deliver her ashes back to her place of birth; a journey that takes him into the middle of the civil war.

In The Story Machine’s abridged version, there are only three visible characters. The first is the narrator, played by Emily Stride, who begins by walking up and down in front of the audience with a wheelbarrow identical to K’s. She is the bridge between K and the audience, and she delivers the majority of the story along with the voice-over (Matt Bannister). The second character is the Doctor, played by John Last, a complete juxtaposition to the narrator’s friendly smile and soft voice. The Doctor is clad in military gear, and shouts and rages at K – and the audience – as he tries to understand K’s nature. He is a reminder of the violence that is always present behind K’s story.

The final character is Michael K, played by Nigerian-born British actor Damola Adelaja, who is present for the entire performance. However, he is not on stage like the other two characters; instead, we view K through a screen as he tills ashen earth, journeys across an arid landscape, and discovers his own little paradise – and he views us back. K only speaks a few of his lines in the entire performance – the rest being narrated – and the lines he speaks are delivered as close to the camera as he can get, staring at the audience beseechingly. The effect is poignant; the audience feels helpless, and K has no agency in his own story.

It’s worth noting that the abstract film was shot entirely on Mousehold Heath after 2018’s dry summer and an unfortunate fire left the landscape looking as arid as a desert; it proves how much you can suspend your disbelief when engrossed in a story, so much that the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the landscapes of South Africa can be transported into the Dragon Hall in Norwich.

This is also the purpose behind the interactive part of this story; at each performance, the audience has had a hand in shaping the set. At the end, ten people are asked to plant vegetable seeds, just like K, with the intent that by the end of the show’s run, the produce will be harvested, a physical symbol of the way the audience shapes the story and the story resonates with the audience.

Going in to this performance, I wasn’t sure if I would like it. By the end, my belief in the simple power of storytelling was reaffirmed. In the Q&A after the show, the director explained how, with little staging and few characters, they had to have faith that “the words are enough”. In this instance, in this celebration of writing, they absolutely are.

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May 2021
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