ONE of the greatest benefits of Scotland’s capital city hosting the biggest arts showcase on the planet is that our August festivals are able to attract truly outstanding international work. One such is, without question, JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (Assembly Hall, until Aug 27).

The piece is a co-production by the Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town and the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. Many theatre lovers will remember with great fondness the Baxter’s powerful production of Yaël Farber’s Mies Julie (a searing adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie relocated to South Africa), which was the deserved toast of the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.

This play (an adaptation by the show’s director Lara Foot) uses puppets and actors to tell Coetzee’s famous story of war and survival in apartheid South Africa. The protagonist, Michael K, is doubly an outsider, having been born with a cleft lip and categorised by the apartheid state as neither white nor black, but “coloured”.

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Displaced by a fictional civil war, Michael goes on a journey of extraordinary trials and tribulations. The drama follows him through his desperate efforts to find food to eat, the many harassments of coercive officialdom and on to his Herculean efforts to save his beloved mother from conflict, poverty and ill-health.

Cutting between intelligently minimised narration and brilliant dramatisation, Foot’s production boasts a series of unforgettable puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company (the people behind the glorious equine puppets in War Horse). The puppet of the grown-up Michael, in particular, is imbued with a deeply sympathetic pathos.

The acting by the South African cast is universally outstanding. The set and lighting designs are genuinely atmospheric, as are the production’s music, sound and projected imagery. Everything is brought together beautifully to retell Coetzee’s tale with the bleak humour, urgent humanism and sense of epic spectacle that it demands.

There is astonishing spectacle, too, in Trojan Women (Festival Theatre, run ended), a truly memorable work of Korean opera, staged as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Staged by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, this adaptation of Euripides’s ancient play, conceived and directed by Singaporean dramatist Ong Keng Sen, uses the distinctive styles of Korean changgeuk opera and the classical music and song of pansori.

The piece is played on an amazing, maximalist white set, which is dominated by a great, modernistic archway that thrusts toward the front of the stage. On to this set are projected all-consuming elemental and cosmic images that reflect the sheer scale of the tragedy that befalls the women of defeated Troy at the end of the 10-year war with Greece.

As Kim Kum-mi’s Hecuba – who is, by turns, terrified, outraged and stoical – tries to offer leadership to the ill-fated women, one is struck by how powerfully Korean traditional music and song connects with Euripides’s tragedy. This is particularly true of the singing of the chorus, which overflows with terror, anger and (courtesy of writer Bae Sam-sik’s witty text) politicised sarcasm (what, the slave women of Troy wonder, is so hellish about becoming the slaves of Greeks, when they have lived their lives as the slaves of Trojans?).

Korean musical sounds – sparse, striking percussion and the brilliantly sharp sound of the wooden flute – are given to the Trojan women themselves. For Helen, the hated outsider who is blamed for the entire conflict, there is a separate, romantic piano score.

More arresting still is the fact that Helen is cross-cast, with male pansori lead Kim Jun-soo playing the mythical female beauty as an exquisite figure of androgynous allure. Helen’s anguished arrival, like every other aspect of this production, is characterised by the most gorgeous, spare and exact choreography.

Magnificently stylised, unexpectedly comic at times, yet, paradoxically, gut-wrenching in its timeless tragedy, this is an extraordinary and impressively successful hybrid of Korean operatic tradition and ancient Greek drama.

From a spectacular opera to a deceptively modest, one-woman play in Lightning Ridge (Summerhall, until Aug 20). Adapted from the famous children’s book Pobby And Dingan by Ben Rice, the show, by leading Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels, is set in the remote, Australian opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge (population 8053).

Catherine Wheels’s longstanding artistic director Gill Robertson tells the tale of 12-year-old Ashmol Williamson and his younger sister Kellyanne, who becomes increasingly sick after her two imaginary friends (Pobby and Dingan) go missing. Directed and adapted by Robert Alan Evans, the piece is a gloriously inventive, funny and moving 55-minutes of theatre for children aged eight and over (and their adults).

Robertson is a fantastically engaging performer. The early moment where the actor draws a chalk circle on the floor through which she speaks from Scotland to Australia (a local from Down Under asks her how her Australian accent is coming along) is a delightfully ingenious piece of meta-theatre.

The actor climbs deep inside the story, both as narrator and the player of every character. As she does so, she takes us with Ashmol and his Dad in their search for Pobby and Dingan (a search that leads to various dangers, and to beautifully humorous acts of solidarity).

The play is performed on a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy set (the work of the brilliant theatre-maker Shona Reppe). Robertson is assisted by projected images, a series of unexpectedly versatile props (including a set of ladders and an upside-down bicycle) and excellent music and sound (designed by Daniel Padden) that ranges from Vivaldi to the echoes inside an opal mine.

Finally, from award-winning children’s fiction we go to a work of politically committed musical theatre in After the Act (A Section 28 Musical) (Traverse, until Aug 27). The show is a verbatim musical about the wide-ranging consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s notoriously homophobic legislation, Section 28 (aka Clause 28) of the Local Government Act 1988.

The legislation designated families that had lesbian, gay or bisexual members as “pretended family relationships” and, crucially, it forbade local authorities (including all state schools) from “promoting” homosexuality. Coming at the time of the “gay plague” headlines around the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Tory government’s “don’t die of ignorance” public health campaign (complete with falling tombstones), the new law had a devastating impact on LGBTQ+ people.

It also led to a political fightback. Both aspects – the fear and repression, on the one hand, and the activist response, on the other – are reflected in this musical by Breach Theatre.

The show’s script is carefully constructed by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens. The (appropriately, 1980s electro-pop driven) musical score is composed by Frew.

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By setting firsthand accounts, tabloid journalism and parliamentary speeches to music, the play avoids the dryness that often affects verbatim drama. At times, inevitably, the directly reported speech refuses to operate with the flexibility of bespoke lyrics.

However, that is easily forgiven as, with the assistance of projected images and video, the cast of four actor-singers and two musicians tell their story with great humour, anger and energy.

For audience members who are too young to remember these events, the unvarnished bigotry of the pro-Section 28 forces will be astonishing. For those of us who were there, the disgust is easily rekindled by an admirable piece of theatre that draws an important parallel between the homophobia of the late-1980s and transphobia today.