Life of Pi
Reviewed – 29th November 2021
“This is theatre at its most hallucinatory and wonderful, yet fundamentally simplistic; created by a collective vision that you forget is there.”
“Which story do you prefer?” asks Piscine “Pi” Patel of the two Japanese officials investigating the shipwreck from which he is the only survivor. We are approaching the end of this fantastical tale and it is a beautifully pertinent and intentional moment. It is a much more satisfying question rather than “which story they think is the true one”. ‘Life is a story’ and ‘You can choose your story’ are just two of the themes that wash up from the cruel sea of allegories that “Life of Pi” presents. Choosing what you believe and, in turn, controlling those beliefs is as treacherous as taming a Bengal tiger.
Transferring from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (delayed by the pandemic), Max Webster’s production, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s novel, has predictably been hailed the new “War Horse”. Yet it is a different beast entirely. As intricate and astonishing as the puppetry is, the magic is also created from the enthralling central performances and the jaw-dropping stage craft. Under Webster’s sabre-sharp direction, the entire team of designers and cast capture the imagination, not just of the author, but of the audience too. It melds them into one of the same, both feeding off each other. It is an almost miraculous feat that is achieved, not from high tech wizardry, but from sheer inventiveness and trust in the human mind.
While Finn Caldwell’s and Nick Barnes’ puppetry breathe life into the wild creatures that pace the stage, Hiran Abeysekera’s central performance as ‘Pi’ is the life-force that pulses through the piece. Abeysekera pulls us into his worlds; his childhood at his father’s zoo, the hospital recovery ward, and onto his lifeboat. We willingly share his perils as he survives over seven months adrift on the Pacific Ocean. Originally accompanied by a hyena, zebra, orangutan and Bengal tiger, he is eventually alone with just the tiger. ‘Pi’ survives in part by acting upon profound philosophical questions that come to him like ghosts; and by pulling shreds of advice from his memory. “Use everything you have and defy the odds”. This latter truism can definitely be applied to the design of the piece in which the minds of Tim Hatley (set), Tim Lutkin (lighting) and Andrzej Goulding (video) have merged to conjure a breath-taking backdrop to the tale. There is a spell-binding moment when ‘Pi’ leaps off his boat into the ocean, vanishing in front of our eyes only to reappear elsewhere from the waves. No high-tech wizardry. Just inventive trickery.
This is theatre at its most hallucinatory and wonderful, yet fundamentally simplistic; created by a collective vision that you forget is there. In the same way, we are aware that the puppets – most noticeably the tiger – are being controlled by four different puppeteers, yet we don’t see them in our minds. What we see is the personality of a sentient creature vividly conjured by the language of its movement. The beast becomes human.
‘Pi’ tells us more than one story. We have his story with animals – fantastical, spiritual and dreamlike. And we have the harsh, scientific realism. “Which story do you prefer?” Pi asks, while provoking our silent answer with “You want a story to confirm what you already know”. This production challenges what we might already know about theatre but also, without a shadow of a doubt, reinforces our belief in the power of theatre. Long after you leave the auditorium, you will be bound by its spell. Abeysekera’s witty, compelling, and poised performance depicts a solo voyage. Surrounded by an incredible, indispensable company of actors it manages to transcend a single life. This is life itself. A fantastic voyage. This is Theatre.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Johan Persson
Life of Pi
Wyndham’s Theatre until 27th February
More shows reviewed by Jonathan this year: