'Life of Pi' review — a theatrical testament to creative brilliance
A teenage boy adrift at sea for 227 days with only a Royal Bengal tiger for company? Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning philosophical novel Life of Pi is the ultimate adaptation challenge – which is what makes this triumphant Sheffield Crucible production, now playing in the West End, such a pleasure. It’s a clear team effort: serious theatrical craft and creative brilliance that results in images of hallucinatory beauty.
Hiran Abeysekera plays Pi Patel, who loses his family when the ship carrying them and the inhabitants of their zoo from India to Canada is struck by a storm. He makes it to a lifeboat, followed by some of those zoo animals: a hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker the tiger – so called because a clerk mixed up the names on the form and gave the great cat his captor’s moniker.
Pi relates his extraordinary tale to two strangers in a Mexican hospital room: a harried transport investigator and a consulate official. This framing device is the weakest element of the production, bluntly spelling out Martel’s exploration of narrative and belief systems, and the two figures are unfortunate stereotypes: the stern Japanese man and the cuddly Canadian woman. The heart sinks whenever we return to this plodding present.
Otherwise, this is a gorgeous staging by adaptor Lolita Chakrabarti and director Max Webster: vivid, witty, poignant and wondrous. It conjures up whole worlds, beginning with the zoo owned by Pi’s parents. A giraffe pokes its head through one of the windows, a zebra shies away from its pen, and a goat playfully butts Pi – all courtesy of War Horse puppeteers Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes.
The detailed physicality is riveting, particularly the tiger, whose joints uncoil like springs as he pounces on his prey before curling up to lick his paws. Equally impressive is the way that it conveys the rich inner lives of these animals. I’m afraid to say I immediately overinvested in the doomed goat – a rookie error. But that’s the point here: we must meet the production with our own imagination and empathy, to be part of the team effort.
From the zoo, we head to a teeming street market and then to the ship, as Pi’s parents decide to leave a politically turbulent India. (Talk of how government corruption damages a whole nation has extra resonance right now.) Here Tim Hatley’s design, Tim Lukin’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video combine to incredible effect, giving us water crashing over the ship’s deck, pounding rain and sheer terror. Later, as Pi drifts in his lifeboat, we get huge skies, rocking waves, pinprick stars and glowing fish – a seascape somewhere between remarkably real and thrillingly mystical.
That works beautifully for Martel’s tale, which must function as both adventure yarn and complex analogy. Pi isn’t just testing his physical will but his understanding of various religions and methods, whether pure logic, mathematical analysis or morality, as well as figuring out how best to process trauma. All of those elements are carried by the phenomenal Hiran Abeysekera, who gives us the raw struggle to cling to life as well as the quick-witted, enigmatic Pi who proves slippery with facts.
There are good supporting turns from Mina Anwar, Nicholas Khan and Payal Mistry as Pi’s family, and Tom Espiner as Commander Grant-Jones, the stuffy upper-crust author of a survival guide which Pi discovers while at sea – and which provides some welcome levity.
President Barack Obama wrote to Martel saying that Life of Pi was “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” While not everyone will agree with the first part of that, this production certainly has a spiritual or otherworldly sensation, and it absolutely demonstrates the transporting joy of magnificent theatrical storytelling.
Photo credit: Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) Tom Larkin (Tiger Head) Nicholas Khan (Pi's Father) (Photo by Johan Persson)