Life of Pi review: Dream-like fable makes for a dazzling night of theatre

·2-min read
Life of Pi features sublime puppetry  (Johan Persson)
Life of Pi features sublime puppetry (Johan Persson)

Dazzling. That’s the word for this stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller about a 16-year-old Indian boy adrift in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger. Director Max Webster fuses sublime puppetry from War Horse’s Finn Caldwell, clever projection, and masterly stage design by Tim Hatley to bring the story to vibrant visual life. The performers throw their whole bodies into it.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s script finesses Martel’s dream-like, magic-realist narrative but preserves his jagged blend of humour and horror. Pi tells us that for a human to survive, he sometimes has to become a beast. The novel was published in 2001 and won the Booker Prize a year later, before the debate about cultural appropriation properly heated up: 20 years on there’s an undeniable whiff of winsome exoticism to its characters and atmosphere.

Our hero is the son of a Pondicherry zoo-owner: named Piscine Molitor after a Parisian swimming pool, he adopts the mathematical term Pi as a nickname and is so religious he becomes simultaneously a devout Hindu, Muslim and Christian. His faith serves him well when the ship taking his family and their menagerie to Canada inexplicably sinks: his vegetarianism, not so much.

Chakrabarti shrewdly inverts the narrative, with Hiran Abeysekera’s magnetic Pi interrogated by investigators in a drab hospital room that unfolds, origami-like, to become the zoo, the ship, the sea. The lifeboat emerges from the apron stage and is soon teeming with life: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan. Then the tiger, known as Richard Parker due to an administrative error, surges aboard.

Hiran Abeysekera stars as Pi (Johan Persson)
Hiran Abeysekera stars as Pi (Johan Persson)

The working of the food chain is brutally illustrated. This is not a show for sensitive younger children, I’d say, though Chakrabarti ensures it can be enjoyed as a fable, as an adventure story, or as a metaphor for human struggle. The story goes to some very dark places indeed but preserves a sense of wonder throughout.

The puppets are all physically eloquent creations, but the tiger, with operators at its head, heart and hind, is something else. Rangy, loose-jointed, beautiful and deadly, it also amusingly assumes the mien of a camp Frenchman in one of Pi’s hallucinatory episodes. Abeysekera’s intense performance, always on the verge of cracking, is the anchor around which the creatures and the remembered ghosts of Pi’s past flow. It’s no criticism to say the puppets seem more fully alive than the other human characters.

Webster’s captivating production was first staged at Sheffield Crucible in 2019, its original West End transfer scuppered by lockdown. It’s fitting that a show celebrating tenacity and inventiveness, in life and on stage, has finally made it.

Wyndham’s Theatre, booking to Feb 2; delfontmackintosh.co.uk

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