This stage version of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winner has to stand as one of the most visually stunning theatre shows I’ve ever seen, especially in the feverishly beautiful second half in which eponymous hero Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific on a lifeboat inhabited only by him and a ferocious tiger named Richard Parker.
Max Webster’s production is an out-and-out triumph for the technical team. Tim Hatley’s versatile set – for which the Wyndham’s stage and stalls have been physically remodelled – thrusts out into the crowd, full of hidden trickery, notably the lifeboat that pops out of the ground in a matter of seconds. Tim Lutkin’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video are sublime, conjuring the unimaginably vast strangeness of the ocean.
And then there are Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppets. In the post-‘War Horse’ era we obviously expect a lot from our puppet pals, but this really is the good stuff: a vibrantly realised menagerie of beasts whose every breath is immaculately choreographed. From the terrifying, dominating, unknowable Richard Parker – who has six puppeteers assigned to him in various rotations – down to the shoals of luminescent flying fish, every puppet is a knockout. And when the light, the video, the set and the puppets are working in concert, the effect is extraordinary, out of this world, like being plunged into a waking dream or strange alien landscape. It is incredible.
Less mindblowing is the story. I read the 2001 novel sometime around its original release and enjoyed it, but 20 years on, and transposed to stage, it feels like the visuals are needed to carry it. In Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation, the first half is all twinkle-eyed whimsy, as we’re introduced to Hiran Abeysekera’s Pi – full name Piscine – and his family, who own a ramshackle zoo in the south Indian coastal town of Pondicherry in the ’70s. They take the decision to relocate the whole thing to Canada by boat to escape Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Pi, a philosophically inclined 16-year-old, who is a signed-up Hindu, Muslim and Christian, initially seems less a compelling character, more a useful human focal point amid the puppet-based japery. Abeysekera is charmingly eccentric in the role. But the fact he is more than double Pi’s age underscores the fact that the production doesn’t really try to sell him as an entirely believable character. I think perhaps a big problem with the move from page to stage is that the more philosophical elements of the novel are lost when it’s simply told as a pacy two-hour yarn.
But then… the second half is so stunningly realised that none of that seems to matter. Pi’s various peculiarities feel less relevant than the simple fact of him as a human being struggling for survival against cataclysmic odds after the boat flounders. I’m not sure Abeysekera ever made me believe I was watching a teenage polytheist. But he absolutely sells Pi to us as a young man adrift in a waking nightmare. And also – in the framing flash-forward scenes – as somebody living with the trauma of what may or may not really have happened during his 227 days at sea. The special effects make the show, but Abeysekera is vital as the human being experiencing it all, our proxy to this terrible wonder.
If you think a play is simply something that exists on a page, ‘Life of Pi’ is not a great play, more an efficient parsing of a book that’s showing its age. But as a work of living, breathing theatre it is, at its best, utterly transcendent.