I’ve fallen out of touch with many things over the last 18 months. I’d no idea Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker winning, film adapted novel Life of Pi had been staged at Sheffield Crucible in 2019 (I was out of touch in the Before Times as well), nor that it was having its delayed West End debut this week at Wyndham’s Theatre. Despite this, I was lucky enough to find myself in possession of tickets. Having seen it, I feel luckier still.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation follows events in the life of 17-year-old Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel (Hiran Abeysekera), who lives a seemingly idyllic life in the zoo his parents own in Pondicherry, India. During political unrest, Pi’s father (Nicholas Khan), makes the decision to sell the zoo and the majority of animals, and emigrate the family to Canada. Pi finds himself the only survivor of the subsequent shipwreck that kills his family, the ship’s crew, and almost all the remaining zoo animals. Herein lies the story. Pi survives 227 days on a lifeboat that initially also contains a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Within a matter of days, it carries only Pi and Richard Parker, and a battle for co-existence—and survival—commences.
The story is fairly simple in content but sweeping in scope and complex in theme, touching on philosophy, religion, the existence of God and the nature of belief. The play’s action mainly alternates between the hospital room where Pi tells his story in an interview with the insurance company investigating the sinking, and the lifeboat on which he survives.
The proscenium arch stage of the beautiful Wyndham’s Theatre, though small, never feels so. In my memory, the lifeboat tossed and turned and twisted on cresting waves. Such was the sense of motion created, I remember it as moving in a manner it couldn’t have, testament to the work of the set, lighting and sound designers, Tim Hatley, Tim Lutkin and Carolyn Downing, respectively. Together, they render the small space large.
Hiran Abeysekera’s Pi dances a fine line between mania, and brooding philosophising, a state that doubtless occurs in many of those who survive unimaginable loss and suffering, and convincingly portrays the riot of emotions such a journey would incur within a human heart.
Of course, it is the puppeteers that crown the evening with their work behind, beside and under the animals they bring to life. Why is good puppetry, in particular of animals, so damn moving? The puppets created for the show are not especially detailed, designed to resemble driftwood, and so jointed as to look like they might come apart any second. Yet they live utterly convincingly. Boy do they. From the moment they enter the stage it is a joy to watch them.
I read Martel’s novel as a teenager and loved it up until the reveal (if that’s the right word for what happens; twist feels incorrect). The reveal changes how the events can be viewed by describing outright what may have actually occurred, then asking the reader to choose which version of the story to believe; for me this spoils the spiritual and reflective qualities Life of Pi otherwise handles so well. The same occurs in the play. This is not a reflection on the production, more an observation on something in the story that, for me, sullies the impact it has. But then I’m the type of person when presented with a choice between wonder, horror, or nothing, I’d pick wonder. Every time.
Onstage, Life of Pi may have flaws. Only its creators know what they are. Congratulations to all involved. You’re everything we’ve been missing.
Directed by: Max Webster
Written by: Lolita Chakrabarti
Novel by: Yann Martel
Puppet & Movement Director: Finn Caldwell
Puppet Designers: Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell
Set & Costume Designer: Tim Hatley
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Lighting by: Tim Lutkin
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding
Composer: Andrew T Mackay
Life of Pi is currently taking bookings until 29 May 2022. Bookings can be made via the below link. (Note this link will take you to LoveTheatre for bookings).