Inventive play Life of Pi gloriously lives and breathes the wonder of theatre to conjure a whimsical, emotional, energetic exploration of the nature of belief.
This puppet-powered show plunges theatregoers into a dark, hallucinatory fable detailing 227 days at sea. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel and the subsequent 2012 film, it tells the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, an Indian teenager who survives a shipwreck and claims to have spent many months marooned on a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger named Richard Parker.
The narrative is awash with symbolism and philosophical musing. This doesn’t always float effortlessly because dialogue that is intended to evoke existential rumination lands heavily at times. It teeters towards a soaking in soundbites, rather than a ripple effect of nuanced thoughts. Nonetheless, this is a stunningly realised play. It beautifully depicts a brutal truth: life can and will be difficult, but the stories you tell yourself to make sense of things have the power to give you the strength to keep going.
Pi recounts his traumatic experiences from a hospital bed in Mexico, so we are shown flashbacks of his family’s colourful zoo in Pondicherry before being thrown into choppy waters for tall tales on the high seas. We see the family board a cargo ship with their mesmerising menagerie and set sail for a new life at a new zoo in Canada. A violent storm strikes. Animals escape their crates. The ship dramatically sinks. As the sole survivor, Pi essentially processes what has happened to him through storytelling and finds comfort in a delirium of make-believe.
Consequently, magic and realism collide with incredible creativity that capitalises on the sorcery of theatre: the audience colludes in collective imaginings made possible by incredible puppetry, seamlessly synchronised movement (accompanied by scene-setting music and dancing shadows) and awesome visual effects. We contemplate the human in the animal and the animal in the human. Consider how to move through challenges with grace and dignity. Question the meaning of life – as well as how puppets can pull at our heartstrings so strongly despite us knowing that they are not real animals.
Tiger-taming as a metaphor for fighting to find your way by believing in something greater than yourself? Theatre as therapy? Life of Pi is whatever you want it to be.
Prior to his distressing voyage, Pi is a 16-year-old Hindu vegetarian who is already slightly adrift on dry land. He is being encouraged in his swimming training to “stretch your hands as far as you can reach and just keep moving forwards” and has recently started weaving Hinduism, Christianity and Islam together in order to be able to love God as much as he can. He is open to ideas and only just starting to appreciate how dangerous the world really is.
The role of Pi is very physical – the character is perpetually on the stage and constantly moving. He clambers on and off the hospital bed, scampers around animal enclosures, dashes across the ship’s decks, rocks the lifeboat with resourceful hustle and bustle. Divesh Subaskaran, making his professional debut in this role, is a force of nature as the eponymous narrator.
This is storytelling at its wildest though, so the entire cast coordinates to ensure the audience is swept up in Pi’s epic journey of endurance and hope. All the characters help stage the unstageable by carrying props and conversations that transport us to Pi’s reality. Notably, this reality is framed as survival of the fittest. The storm is an immersive natural disaster. Animals devour each other. Humans deceive and doubt each other. Sometimes lines get a bit shrill and shouty or are lost in the waves, but the lasting impression is one of overwhelmingly affecting spectacle.
Like in War Horse, the real stars in Life of Pi are the puppets. There are fluttering butterflies in every shade of the rainbow and racing shoals of iridescent fish. A bucking goat raises laughs before being used to teach Pi and his sister a cruel life lesson. A galloping zebra shakes elegant limbs and flicks a flowing mane. A mum-and-son orangutan double act swings through trees and feasts on bananas (the featured fruit in this story: they are full of potassium and can also float). A vicious hyena raises its hackles. A ferocious tiger makes an impressive, albeit disconcertingly carnivorous, entrance.
The puppeteers behind and beneath these exquisitely crafted beasts bend and breathe as one. They grunt and growl and give the whole of themselves to the creatures their choreography creates. The animals are real. We believe in them.
The only way to respond is with thunderous roars of applause.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 5 minutes, including an interval.
*Production photography by Johan Persson and Ellie Kurttz.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.