Life of Pi

Lolita Chakrabarti, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Simon Friend in association with Playing Field and Tulchin/Bartner Productions and Sheffield Theatres
Sheffield Lyceum

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Owain Gwynn and Kate Colbrook in Life of Pi Credit: Johan Persson
Black and White Zebra and Hiran Abeysekera Credit: Johan Persson
Hiran Abeysekera and Richard Parker Credit: Johan Persson

This thrilling dramatisation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel owes so much to Lolita Chakrabarti's adaptation and the creativity, imagination and collaboration of the whole production team.

The opening scenes introduce us to teenager Pi Patel, his family and the zoo in Pondicherry, India which holds a number of ferocious wild animals, including a spotted hyena, a Grant's zebra, an orangutan called Orange Juice and, most fearful of all, a Bengal tiger mistakenly named Richard Parker.

These animals are brilliantly represented by life-size puppets (designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) whose movement is enabled by up to three dedicated, agile operatives who "amplify the thoughts, emotions and reactions of the puppet characters".

Each of the animals mentioned plays an important part in the unfolding drama, none more important than the tiger. In the performance I saw, the tiger made its first appearance through a dark tunnel, and a hush fell over the audience as it appeared.

The Patel family decide to leave India when Indira Ghandi announces an 'Emergency' or suppression of democracy. They set out for Canada but are shipwrecked on the way and Pi is the only survivor except for the animals that join him on a lifeboat and raft. Eventually, he shares it with the tiger.

The play allows opportunities for a wide range of exciting settings. The zoo with its cages is presented by moving metal barriers from one site to another; the market scene is assembled with rapid efficiency and gives an idea of the colour and vitality of life before the family’s departure; the storm scene and the sinking of the ship; the floating of people and items as the ship sinks; and the all important area of the lifeboat and raft which contains so much of the action.

The focus now is on survival and Pi's gradual change from youthful idealism to pragmatic reality in the 227 days before he reaches land. As he weakens, he loses touch with reality and begins to hallucinate, imagining that the tiger is talking to him.

Chakrabarti's play structure cleverly includes a late setting in a hospital in Mexico where Pi is slowly coming to terms with his loss after the ordeal. A cynical representative of a shipping company refuses to believe his story. So he offers her an alternative which doesn't include animals but does include the death of his mother. Which version does she prefer?

When we first meet Pi, he is investigating three religions, Hindu, Christianity and Islam. He tries to understand God through each religion and recognises the benefits of each. Martel has said that Life of Pi can be summarised in three statements: "Life is a story", "You can choose your story" and "A story with God is a better story". These are the alternatives offered to Mrs Okamoto in the hospital. The story about being cast away with a ferocious tiger is a story which shows Pi living with his loss and learning to be ruthless in order to survive.

Divesh Subaskaran gives a powerful performance as Pi, on stage throughout. Ralph Birtwell as Pi’s father asserts himself strongly in a scene in which he alerts his family to the danger of being too close to wild animals, ironic as the plot progresses. The whole family group, including mother Amma (Goldy Notay), gives an impression of family solidarity at a difficult time.

This is a powerful experience in the theatre, full of creativity and imaginative staging. Not to be missed.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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