In common with many others, I read Yann Martel’s novel, ‘Life of Pi’, in the second year of its publication, after it had won the Man Booker Prize for 2002. It was one of those books that caused me to neglect sleep and food until it was completed; I found it theologically intriguing, vividly pictorial and supremely clever. At the spine of the story is a consciousness choice between hopelessness and faith; the acceptance of quitting or the determination to succeed whatever that may take, in itself a common premise for storytellers of both life and fiction throughout history, but, whilst Martel’s work reverberates with echoes of sources as diverse as Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, Aesops Fables, Panchatantra, and Hemingway’s foray into existential parable, ‘The Old Man And The Sea’, it is overwhelmingly more subtle, perceiving the battle not to be one only of sheer physical endurance. Pi, the teenage protagonist, must finesse his demon rather than overcome it, slowly realising that survival is dependent upon knowing when to assert his own authority and when to acquiesce to a power greater than himself. It is, in essence, a gedanken experiment, using the power of imagination to discover meaning and spirituality whilst enduring the terrible circumstances of being adrift at sea for 227 days.
‘ ''I had to tame him,' he realised. ''It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat…because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker.'' ’
President Obama is said to have found the story so moving that, in a letter to the author, he described it as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling".
I’m always cautious of novels being made into films; there is something about the process that I can’t quite quantify that sucks the air out of the beauty of the written word and, no matter how skilled the production team, puts in its place something that may be pleasant to look at, but is somehow a deflated representation of the original. In 2012, after a long line of directors had jumped ship on the challenge, Ang Lee took the gutsy move to embrace 3D technology to bring about the film of ‘Life of Pi’, keeping a tight enough rein on the digital elements to tell the story unobtrusively, and for those who do find their hearts in film, it was a triumph of cinematic genius, but, as lovely as it was, it didn’t cut it for me. What I really wanted to see was how Martel’s gorgeous narrative and wonderful characters would translate to the theatre, in the hands of creatives with the combined skills and talents to give his text the extravagant stage treatment it deserved and commanded. At Sheffield Theatres that has finally been accomplished.
Nineteen years after its publication, Life of Pi has been placed in the hands of a dream team of theatrical royalty, and together they have brought into being a show that so sumptuously spreads across the depths of Sheffield Crucible and tells the tale with such magnificence and aesthetic splendour that it was very much worth every minute of waiting. To misquote Martel’s Pi, ‘Sheffield Theatres can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the cast are fantastic, and the…special effects are absolutely unlimited.’ ₁
Although Lolita Chakrabati, was brought up in the Midlands, she was Yorkshire born, and we are proud to claim her as one of our own. Stage adaptations either hit the mark in embracing the full quality of the original text or, as invariably happens, they become an entirely new work completely, doing little more than nodding in an insulting acknowledgement that an author gave them a source idea, and often the difference between the two can be traced back to how closely the adapter is looking through the lens of someone who has been present in a rehearsal room, engaged in a table talk and had command of a stage, realising fully that the text they read and speak is the creative treasure of another and must be treated with integrity and respect. Chakrabati is both an accomplished actor and playwright who has won accolades in both disciplines; she instinctively understands the author-as-owner paradigm and is also fully conversant with what ‘works’ in a theatrical context and what doesn’t, and it is capitalising on this duality to full measure in her script for Life of Pi that makes it shine. Whilst inevitable changes have had to be made for the balance, aesthetics and length of the piece, Chakrabati has been sensitive enough to consult with Martel to produce something that is stripped back, yet richly authentic to the essence of the original novel, but also eminently satisfying as a stage text.
The Director, Max Webster said in an interview with Matt Trueman in 2018,
“Increasingly, I choose things that are just impossible to stage” ₂
and certainly he likes to set himself gigantuan challenges. Shows such as ‘James and the Giant Peach’ for Leeds Playhouse, and ‘Dr Seuss’s The Lorax’ for Old Vic Theatre (to name but two from a hefty repertoire) had already shown his strength for presenting spectacular visual and aural feasts with multiple layering of effects, colour, texture and sound. Life of Pi takes all of this so much further, utilising, in conjunction with Designer, Tim Hatley, a full tool box of theatrical illusion and mechanics to produce something that is richly sensual and celebratory.
In 2015, Puppet Director, Finn Calwell, and Puppet Designer, Nick Barnes, collaborated with Webster on bringing to life the magical moustachioed Lorax, and it’s thrilling to see the trio working together again on Life of Pi, where the puppets call for larger scale, more realistic, animals who have that balance between being appealing whilst encompassing the raw (and sometimes brutal) energy of the wild. Calwell and Barnes are both accomplished practitioners with gold star credentials, and the outcome is dazzling. Richard Parker, Orange Juice and her baby, the hyena, the giraffe, the zebra and the goat, all make an instant emotional connect with the audience and are masterfully maneuvered into life (and death) by members of the cast, but equally as magically enriching to the scenography are the sea turtle and the shoal of luminescent fish.
The sinking of the Tsimtsum (named after Isaac Luria’s cosmogeny teaching that God created the universe by carrying light in five vessels which shattered, causing the light to sink into matter and become the five dimensions of life), the appearance of the lifeboat and the ocean storms are thrillingly executed using clever set design, video and sound scapes created by Tim Lutkin, Andrew T. Mackay and Carolyn Downing, carrying this piece of stagecraft to a whole new level. Whether standing in the grounds of the zoo at Pondicherry, discussing religion in the bustle of the market place, looking at the night sky from a sea stranded vessel or watching from a hospital bed to see if bananas really do float, this is theatre that is all consuming; that wraps around us and draws us into Pi’s story, making the audience conspirators in his tale; whether it is one that inevitably proves to be of fantasy, delusion or allegory, it has immersed us as surely as we saw our hero go through the stage of the Crucible and emerge on the other side.
All of this creative energy needed a strong, intelligent cast and it certainly has that. We can’t help but have a smidgen of sympathy for Mr Okamoto (David K.S. Tse) and Lulu Chen (Gabby Wong) who just want to do their respective jobs and file away the matter as concluded. Habib Nasib Nader is suitably scary as both the cook and the roar of Richard Parker, Rani (Tara Davina) is the loveable, irritating at times, but devoted sibling we would all wish to have, and Pi’s Father (Kammy Darweish) is suitably loving, if stern, even when he has hard lessons to teach his children. In a theatre piece like this, it’s easy to forget that this is a cast of thirteen and to perceive them as invisible for the most part, but the reality is that when an animal moves the cast move, when the stars shine, the cast are there holding them, and when a fish flies over Pi’s head a cast member is adding to that sense of wonder. All thirteen are on that stage for almost all of the show, and their stamina, movement skills and versatility are to be totally applauded. That said, it is Pi (Hiran Abeysekara) who carries the weight of the spoken text and it is Pi who will remain in people’s minds; he is played with extraordinary skill, vocal and physical dexterity.
Life of Pi is astounding - sensational in every way – it raises the bar substantially and is going to be a very hard act for anyone to follow. I sincerely hope it is going to have a life beyond its run at Sheffield Theatres, because it deserves to go on and on and on. This is the calibre of theatre that is as rare as hen’s teeth, and that it has its premiere in Sheffield is extremely special. It is proof perfect of the potency of creative imagination and collaboration, and when that imagination is captured by both children and adults alike, it is a power that encircles everything it touches.
Were I constrained to the discipline of an orthodox review, I would be ending by delivering a star rating for the production. I leave my own ‘star-rating’ by quoting Yann Martel’s words,
‘… The stars shone with such fierce, contained brilliance that it seemed absurd to call the night dark.’
Many, many congratulations to all of the creatives, cast, production team and staff of Sheffield Theatres on such an awesome achievement.
Life of Pi is showing at Sheffield Crucible until July 20. 2019.
Box Office - 0114 249 6000
₁ Yann Martel’s quote (Life of Pi) – ‘Nature can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the extras are innumerable, and the budget for special effects is absolutely unlimited.’
₂ Trueman, M.,2018. What's On Stage'.
All other quotes - Martel, Y, 2009. Life of Pi (Canongate Books)
‘Observing is the basis of wisdom’ – Eraldo Banovac.
In our constantly noisy, heads down, hurrying, scurrying world there is little room for simply being; still and wholly present, allowing our senses to silently gather information about what is happening around us, without the intervention of the clambering voices of others, or the need for our own spoken judgement.
At the very root of the word ‘Observer’, is the 14th century concept of sitting within a place of worship, imbibing the atmosphere of a religion where the rites and chants are in a language unknown, and the words on the page undecipherable to the illiterate masses; absorbing the mystery passed through the priesthood from a seat within the sanctuary and through that simple act of presence to set faith in context. The Latin ‘observare’ is self explanatory; ob – ‘in front of’, ‘before’, and servare – ‘to watch and keep safe’, from the PIE root ser ‘to protect’, and in many ways the creative work of the artists within the rehearsal room is just as sacred. For the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sheffield Theatres, I was given the extreme privilege of being that observer, sat quietly sifting the words and processes of the rehearsal space.
Just as an actor is always taught the imperative of listening, learning to be a director by quietly observing without input how theatre is created is of paramount value. The collective hive-mind of actors, musicians, composers, set and costume designers, choreographers, lighting technicians and many more, under the care of the Director and Assistant Director, within the creative space, must be carefully protected, allowing them the freedom to experiment, explore, fail, re-negotiate and triumph without interruption or judgement. I already knew, from the actor’s perspective, what a transformative learning experience the rehearsal room can be, especially with a creative team and actors who are working at the highest level of the industry, but I now longed for a different viewpoint; to observe and learn from an accomplished, respected and established Director, with an aim of understanding the skills and attributes that a professional director possesses in order to be effective in expressing a production visually, aurally, physically and technically. It is deeply humbling and mind-blowingly overwhelming to discover what can be learned by simply being given a seat in the room.
I had applied to be Observer Director specifically for A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it was a play that I had been doing a research paper on and I was particularly interested in the way that classical material was handled, but it was also supremely wonderful to be doing my observership with Robert Hastie and a group of very talented professionals who were all so generous in their spirits and accepting of my presence. Hastie came to directing from being an actor; that too was important to me, and I very much appreciated his open-heart, gentle philosophy and quiet kindness.
Whilst I wouldn’t normally choose to write about something that was such a personal and private learning experience for me, as more and more theatres offer invitations to observe productions, I sense that there is a need to give a flavour of what this means; in a world dominated by interactive learning, the supreme value and benefits of observation as a disciplined practice can perhaps be overlooked or misunderstood. Theatres vary in how these experiences are offered, but essentially being an Observer Director is being a silent guest in the rehearsal space, with no direct interaction with the director or creative process. Sheffield theatres are generously open in their approach, and I had access to talks with the Director, the Assistant Director and other creatives, as well as being able to participate and have some responsibility in some of the talks and rehearsal exercises, but that is not always the case, and it is the responsibility of the Observer to respect the integrity of how individual schemes work.
The first day began with the room packed to capacity with Sheffield Theatres’ executive and production staff, marketing, publicity, box office, interns, creatives, technicians, actors, administration, et cetera, brief introductions from all and the housekeeping necessities that come with a company arriving, quickly progressing into discussions of the overall directorial concept, designer presentations and a preliminary read through. The cast were taken for a tour of the building, the theatre staff dispersed, the Director, Assistant Director and myself were the only ones left in the room, and the intricate weaving of schedules for rehearsals, fittings, production meetings, music and choreography began to be charted out. After lunch, a production meeting, another read through with the company and some preliminary staging and music sessions, individual actors disappearing occasionally for fittings.
From thereon, the days and weeks disappeared in a flurry of staging and choreography sessions, music rehearsals, production meetings, costume fittings and technical. The company ranged from those who had been in the profession for many years, and those for whom it was their first role beyond drama school, but constantly I was impressed by their input, intelligent team work, humour and camaraderie as scene staging was walked through, re-arranged, experimented with and shaped, the movement director demonstrating and refining choreography, until through many incarnations, construction and deconstruction of scenes, much feedback and sharing of concepts and ideas, a final formation was discovered for each tiny part. It was a rich, fluid, collaborative endeavour purposed through hours of intense, concentrated work sessions, and I learned so much by simply seeing the processes unfold in front of me.
The dynamics in the rehearsal space was one of the things that intensified for me the respectful relationship between the Director, Movement Director and cast. As the actors processed the information, some fulfilled the direction without question, working through the steps or movement, whilst others jumped straight in with questions of motivation, logistics and alternatives, creating an active conversation and peer-like relationship between Directors and actor. Hastie was able to work simultaneously with both groups as he discussed and explored the arc of the scenes, quietly moving from disseminator to collaborator, the skill level of the actors allowing him to create overall parameters for scenes without restricting input or creativity, which concurrently allowed them to make choices and create characters without rigid directives. I remember noting at one point, that Hastie was more listening than prescribing, and this, I believe, went a long way to explaining the room’s collaborative energy and productive atmosphere. It was evident right throughout that the actors felt listened to, which, in turn, made them true confederates in the process; they were remarkable at incorporating the many changes, some of which were extensive, some minute, but which came at them constantly, each change increasing clarity in the characterisations and overall story.
Similarly, as pragmatic questions had to be asked involving everything from props and sound cues, to safety for actors and placing of stage markings, through adjustments to costume, I was able to observe the respect for, and mutual proactive problem solving between, the Director, actor, creatives and technicians, many of whom have years of experience, until efficient solutions were found that enhanced and complemented the vision for the production. It was also useful to notice how, as the Director’s focus was drawn to larger production issues, the Assistant Director (wonderful Taio Lawson) moved closer to the cast in order to address specific actor concerns onstage, but always conferring with Hastie; an aspect of the wider collaborations that was particularly effective in the compressed technical-rehearsal context where problems needed to be resolved simultaneously on multiple fronts. Lawson was clear in supporting and communicating Hastie’s vision and, when faced with a complex situation, brought questions directly to him. Conversations between the two provided a platform for continued updates, questions and concerns that confirmed my understanding that effective collaboration and a clear focus of purpose should always be about keeping the lines of communication open and active.
There is a constant argument that rages in theatrical circles as to whether the art of directing can be taught through educational theory or is best learned by doing, and perhaps the reality is that there is a place for both, but certainly, having gone through the processes of being an Observer Director with Sheffield Theatres, I know how much I absorbed through watching an experienced theatre director at every stage of production. I equated it with the difference between a classically trained violinist, where every lesson has been structured to achieve a performer worthy of orchestral precision, and the philosophy of the Hungarian folk violinists who allow their children to stand at the back of the group with their instruments, without any formal instruction, to absorb the notes, finger positions and rhythms until their screechings subside and they are in joyful harmony with those at the front.
I cannot emphasise enough to any would-be director the usefulness of silent observing, whether ultimately an educational route is pursued or an ‘apprenticeship’ through subsequent assistant directorships. There is no simple answer as to ‘why’. The experience was as expansive as it was specific. I was able to confirm and affirm the collaborative processes and mechanics of development, rehearsal and performance that I had been taught through pedagogical demonstration as being in line with the professional practice of the craft. Within a larger frame, I observed the Sheffield Theatres organisation successfully produce one of two significant works in development over the period. My understanding of terminologies and protocols increased one hundred fold. I had the immense privilege of watching Hastie negotiate every aspect of the development of a Shakespeare text in an entirely new and imaginative way, as he moved between his creative team and cast, and it has to be said, not only watching the Director, but also the incredibly gifted Assistant Director gave huge insight into dynamics and career progression. I had the advantage of observing every artistic and directorial choice made without bearing any of the burden of those choices. Glen Berger writes that a director is,
‘required to cultivate a well-defined, compelling aesthetic and make choice after choice based on that aesthetic. And each of those decisions shuts a few doors; ferries the work closer to finality, with only hindsight revealing which decisions were inconsequential, and which ones were a bullet dodged, or a time bomb triggered.’ (*Berger, 2013)
That unique vantage point as the unburdened Observer Director allowed me to expand my understanding of directing, whilst also further developing my own artistic aesthetic and vision awareness without any consequence whatsoever to the production.
The art of observation is a profoundly humbling one, but one that stretches the thinking and imparts lessons that will stay with me for a very long time. It is, in essence, becoming totally open to receiving the artistic impulses of others through quiet listening, stillness and observational alertness. I am extremely grateful that those ‘others’ were so lovely and generous in all they gave me and I count it complete honour to have been invited to take a seat in that sacred place that is the rehearsal room. My thanks to all those who allowed me this very special role of observation in the place where collaborative processes flow freely and theatre flourishes. I count every second a joyous one.
* Berger, G., 2013. Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of The Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.. New York: Simon and Schuster.
I was present at the read-through of ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’, the 2018 offering of the superb Sheffield People's Theatre, instinctively knew that it was going to be incredibly special, and so it was. A production that came from the hearts of the city’s residents, invited to tell their stories, to put into words what it meant to be living in that urban environment. Some had known no other place, some had gone away and then returned, some had found welcome as refugees and others had moved there for work. There were stories of the steel industry and the blitz, of the fancy new furniture stores, and of the buildings most intrinsic to supporting the city’s poorest residents being closed down by bureaucracy. Tales to uplift and tales that splintered the soul. In an act of pure alchemy, John Hollingworth, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, transformed these narratives, blending and shaping them into a cohesive whole that celebrated with gusto the city of Sheffield and everyone who finds place and affirmation there.
Emily Hutchinson is a master of directing community casts, guiding each individual, no matter how unused to stage performance, with a caring and enabling approach that allows them to discover for themselves their own gifted potentials along with the depth of their characters. Darragh O’Leary, as Movement Director, complements her with his humour and equally empowering words that encourage the company to push the boundaries of what they thought their bodies were capable of. Matthew Malone, the Musical Director, completes the talented trio that confidently moulds the ensemble of Sheffield People’s Theatre into something beautiful. The Crucible stage is an impressive space for any company to negotiate, and more so a large ensemble that weaves in and out, dances, sings and does high kicks in close proximity to each other and a variety of props, but with their combined adroit direction, it looks elegant and ordered throughout the whole production.
Kevin Jenkins’ stage sets are always mesmerising and delightful feats of engineering, and this for ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’ is no different. Staging platforms that convert into trains, shop displays, community hall settings, a church and two front rooms at the flick of a lever; bunting that appears from nowhere for the summer fete; a breath-taking cascade of butterflies and the frightening cages of a refugee holding camp. With two important exceptions, Jenkins’ makes the costumes almost disappear in relation to the settings as, in this piece, it isn’t what the characters are wearing that gives the audience clues to the chaos inside them. Gerald, as Narrator and guardian of all that is occurring, stands outside the action and has his own understated, but distinct, identity. The managers of the modern Nordic furniture shop with their glistening smiley promises of flat pack dreams are incongruously oblivious to the turmoils within those they employ and the neighbourhood in which they stand, their sunshine yellow livery screaming discord with the muter colours of others. Binding the elements together is the stunning lighting devised by Gary Longfield, taking us from ominous lunar eclipse on one side of the world to dazzling solar eclipse on the other side, heralding new beginnings, via every atmospheric emotion in-between.
But it is the dialogue of the stories that has us weeping with the pain of the city’s people and laughing at the absurdities that so often travel alongside grief and loss.
A community worker, Bec, doing her selfless best to keep a youth project started by her dad, Gerald, going, despite the council’s attempts to close the building. She fights back and finds personal happiness on the way to resolution.
A refugee family, headed up by Koshi and Rabka, that faces the crushing realities and fears of being returned to war torn Aleppo and being separated from a child in the cruel and dangerous journey they have just undertaken to reach a city where a relative was once happy. It would have been so easy for Hollingworth to circle the events of their narrative and give them a long term happy ending, but to do so wouldn’t be authentic to those who made themselves vulnerable in relating their own stories or the many hundreds of others who seek safety on our shores, and our hearts are in our mouths hoping and praying that they will be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they find a home where they are welcomed and enfolded into family and we join in bittersweet rejoicing at the kindness they have been shown along the way.
A widow, Kaye, slowly adjusting to her new status, tentatively taking those steps through the grief process that all who have lost know only too well, and dealing with family who mean well, but are incapable of understanding the route she must take. Her late husband, Gerald, is still very present to her in the beginning, but as life takes on a new purpose and focus, she allows herself to let him go.
A mousy, timid vicar, Linda, trapped between an abusive marriage and her fear of leaving because of her status in the church. Linda asks searching theological questions. How can she minister to those seeking marriage when her own marriage has not been a success? Leaving will mean losing the vicarage and her shame will be laid bare for all to see. Will the church still support her or will it reject her? Questions she negotiates with admiral faith and reflection, whilst still being there as God’s representative for those who seek her help. We’re on the edge of our seats willing her to leave her arrogant and pompous husband and when the Bishop blesses her decision, we see sense has prevailed.
A manager of the brand new SKANDEA, Barry, who along with colleagues Gary and Marta, is excited to see what new opportunities will open up in the city as the store revitalises employment prospects, but struggles with his own issues and concerns. The SKANDEA store provides a number of the more upbeat moments in the show and Marta is just brilliant in selling the Swedish lifestyle complete with korv ladies carrying trays of complimentary Swedish hot dogs.
A teenager, Georgie, assigned a male at birth, but who knows she is not comfortable in her own skin. Georgie’s search for identity and re-assignment as a female, told by the authentic owner of the story, is so eloquently presented and so beautifully owned that it is powerful in the extreme. At one point, I have to hold on to the edges of my seat to stop myself charging down the aisle and wrapping this beautiful lady in my arms. As her family comes to acceptance of her decision, I don’t think there is one audience member who is not in tears.
Six main stories, but holding references to a legion more, told by a cast that are so bound in unity and common aim that it would be utterly wrong to mark one out from another. That is the essence of ensemble, and they are all truly wonderful.
Hills struggled up, panting at the top and then the sheer exhilaration of running or rolling down the other side, swiftly followed by the slow, aching traverse up the next one as life goes on in its continuing ebbs and flows, highs and lows; seasons of chaos and seasons of peace. There are moments that sear the heart with their cruelty and pain, those that cause tears to fall at the tenderness, the hurts, the rejections, the rejoicings, the waitings, the decisions to be made and the letting go to be done, and there are the times of fun and laughter, melancholic ballads and uplifting songs that catch us up in their bright, cheery tunes. Throughout it all, a city sheltering between seven hills that takes into its midst the broken souls of our weary world, cradles, nurtures and heals them with the compassion and welcome of its people.
Tender, sensitive and oh, so beautifully executed. My congratulations to everyone involved.