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Want to know what the Life of Pi is like on stage?

16 March 2022

In the author’s note opening Yann Martel’s 2001 novel The Life of Pi, the writer explains that whilst trying to finish a novel on a trip to India, he meets a coffee shop waiter promising to tell him a story that will make him believe in God. This leads him to the man who originated that story, which makes up the rest of the book.

What follows seems to be a remarkable memoir of a boy lost at sea after a shipwreck, with only a tiger called Richard Parker for a companion.

But appearances can be deceiving. The book is not a memoir. It’s a fantastical, postcolonial novel that won the 2002 Booker Prize, was adapted into a film in 2012 and then a stage play. First produced at the Sheffield Crucible in 2019, this marvellous meditation on truth, storytelling and faith now runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre.

In an austere, grey hospital room in Mexico with high, angular walls, two government officials (Kirsten Foster and David KS Tse) attempt to question the reluctant, 17-year-old Pi (Hiran Abeysekera) who was found on the beach five days prior.

They are trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious sinking of a cargo ship a few hundred days ago, of which Pi is the sole survivor. When Pi begins to open up to Tse, who plays the cold and business-like Mr Okamoto, he promises to tell him a story that will make him believe in God. This is a lovely nod to the original source material from playwright Lolita Chakribarti, and a canny choice that works well in a stage adaptation of the book.

Pi starts his tale in his native Pondicherry, where his parents owned a zoo in the city's botanical gardens.

Chakribarti and director Max Webster don't just tell us this though, they take us there though a transformation of the plain hospital into the colourful, noisy world of the Indian zoo. A giraffe peeks through windows at the back, butterflies circle, and Pi's father (Nicholas Kahn) wrangles zebras, an orangutan mum and baby, and a goat, amongst other creatures.

At the same time, the family is preparing to relocate their entire zoo to Canada due to political upheaval in India. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin embraces vibrant tones, and the animals are all played by life-size puppets, equally majestic and delightful. Their colours are saturated to the point that they are almost cartoonish, but puppet designers Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes keep just to the side of realism.

After all, this isn't a children's show. Though the main character is a child and puppets are heavily featured, the shipwreck that happens shortly after his family set off for Canada is frightening.

This is followed by a distressing story of Pi's struggle to survive on a lifeboat in the Pacific. Pi and three of the animals - a hyena, a zebra and Richard Parker the tiger are all that's left.

However, Richard Parker quickly takes out the others animals, and Pi battles the tiger to ensure his own survival. They maintain an uneasy, tense yet touchingly dependent relationship whilst floating on their little boat (designed by Tim Hatley) that is buffeted by the elements. However, Pi is supported by memories of his mother (the warm and nurturing Mina Anwar), his father, and a military commander (Tom Espiner). The latter introduces an unsettling imperialism, but it's appropriate given Pi's origin and reason for being in the situation in the first place.

A more prominent theme that underpins the story is religion. Before he and his family set off on their ill-fated voyage, it is revealed that Pi is a practicing Muslim, Catholic and Hindu. Whilst others take issue with Pi refusing to choose just one faith, the boy sees no problem with it. His faith provides him with comfort as he drifts across the wide and unforgiving Pacific. The domelike sky, wide sea and the animals within them support his beliefs. They are a source of wonder for both Pi and the audience.

Pi's sharing of these bounties of the sea and sky with Richard Parker is touching, as is Pi's struggle to reconcile with killing and eating animals. As a life-long Hindu vegetarian, he pleads for forgiveness every time he takes a life so he and Richard Parker can eat.

In addition to these weighty topics, there is also humour that sits well beside the marvellous design elements. In particular, Abeysekera plays a convincing teenager who alternates sweet naivety with a blunt and slightly snarky tone. This does not make it a comedy, though.

The strength, survival and trust on show are inspiring, as is the proposal that there are many possible truths - but some make better stories.