I’m ashamed to say I’m one of the few people who has not only been unable to get around to reading this book, but I’ve not even spent the two small hours needed to watch the film.
It’s certainly one I’ve been meaning to get round to, but I think my belief that it was mostly set on a boat with a boy who only had a tiger for company gave me impressions of ‘Castaway’ with Tom Hanks. However, I’d heard great things about the stage production, the playwright given the job of creating what many believed was an impossible feat, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to finally experience this story.
The novel ‘Life of Pi’ was published as recently as 2001 and written by Canadian Yann Martel. It’s centred around the 16-year-old character of Piscine Patel, also known as Pi, who survives 227 days in a lifeboat following a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean.
Pi is not alone in the boat though, as he shares his journey with a Royal Bengal Tiger. The story asks the audience to consider the concept of reality and how it is observed by others, as well as how human beings react and learn to copy with extreme loss and grief.
The book has sold over ten million copies worldwide, won the Man Booker Prize, and in 2012 was developed into a blockbuster film by legendary director Ang Lee, for which he won an Oscar.
Without exaggeration, this has to be one of the best productions I’ve ever seen. I had the same goosebumps that I had when I saw ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time’ on Broadway. In many ways these two shows are quite similar: fast paced, ensemble-heavy theatrical plays on an epic scale. The originality of this production is mind blowing, with swift changes in location from a cold, clinical hospital in Mexico, to a colourful, vibrant zoo in India, to a small, aimlessly floating lifeboat in the middle of a beautifully rich ocean.
Without a doubt the most impressive part of the show (and there were many, many impressive parts of the show) was the use of puppetry, skilfully designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, the latter also taking on the role of puppet director. Puppetry in the theatre has developed significantly over recently years with shows like War Horse, Lion King and companies like Kneehigh and Theatre Alibi. However, I believe that this production outdoes all of them. The beautiful creations were mesmerising to watch, with the cast skilfully controlling them with such elegance that they instantly faded into the background, the animals and their personalities becoming real. These weren’t cute, cuddly animals but rustic and rugged in looks, as though they have been created from shipwrecked materials. The tiger in particularly, controlled by Fred Davis, Kate Rowsell and Peter Twose, was masterfully controlled, the development of the character coming to life, each breath and precise movement showing its change in personality. One of my favourite moments was when the tiger became human-like, this terrifying character creating comedy with its smooth and charismatic movements.
Next in my many highlights from this show was Divesh Subaskaran who played the role of Pi, with this production unbelievably being his debut performance. He created an instantly likeable character, his witty dialogue, created by award-winning playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, providing a constant change in mood from the grief he was undergoing throughout much of the play. Subaskaran created a character that was at the same time young but profound in his thinking, naive yet deeply astute.
Yet again this was a real ensemble performance, with the cast multiroling throughout as well as taking on the controls of the many puppets, from butterflies, to fish, turtles and orangutans. The extremely slick scene transitions were fast paced and creative, with a multifunctional use of set that could in seconds transfer you to a different time and location. Every action and element of this production had clearly been planned to perfection by director Max Webster. Every technical element was consistent in style, the lighting and sound creating a different ambience in every scene.
The projections on the backwall were particularly impressive, giving the hypnotic feel of being both at sea and being dehydrated. The combined use of technical elements meant that you were instantly transported to the locations along with Pi, leaving me nostalgic for my visits to India and Sri Lanka. I’m surprised my husband didn’t book us tickets there and then!
My only slight criticism was that Pi was the only member of his family to have an Indian accent, which made the others seem less connected to him. Occasionally, Subaskaran’s dialogue couldn’t always be understand, especially in his manic moments, but this was actually fitting with the character and emphasised his panicked state of mind.
Ultimately, this is a story about loss and the power of belief. Yann Martel makes us consider what it means to be human, and although we are shown some of the worst acts that humans are capable of doing to each other, we are also shown the love, respect and strength that we are able to possess. What was really highlighted in the play was the power that the brain has to protect the body in order to survive. One cannot help but respect Pi and his strength in his beliefs, his unwavering dedication to see the purity in the world and his reverence for all life. I couldn’t help but feel empowered by his spirituality and although in many ways this book is a tragedy, it will fill you with a sense of hope and inspiration.
I’ll say this again: this is without doubt one of the best shows I’ve ever seen so if you are at all able to, please see it whilst it’s still on! It’s at Leeds Grand Theatre until 13 January.
Book online at leedsheritagetheatres.com or call the box office on 0113 243 0808.
Main image: Hiran Abeysekera as Pi and Richard Parker the Tiger. Photograph by Johan Persson.