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)