For a story centred on the philosophy of religion, Life of Pi is surprisingly high on laughs and spectacle.
This touring Sheffield Theatres’ production of Yann Martel’s novel is a brave and daring adaptation of a tale that at first glance looks unperformable on stage.
The titular Pi leaves a troubled India on a boat bound for Canada with his family and animals from their zoo, only for them to be shipwrecked and our teenage hero trapped on a boat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutang and a tiger.
It sounds like a logic puzzle or the start of a bad joke, but instead it is an exploration of story telling and belief – not least the audience’s willingness to accept a series of full-size puppet animals. Unlike old-school puppetry where the handlers would be dressed in black and do their best to be unseen, the puppeteers creating the Bengali tiger are in plain sight, as are those animating the other animals, stars, and even floating bits of rope.
Combined with well-honed video and projection, it presents a rich visual spectacle, particularly when the creatures are at their most animalistic and gorily focused on their survival. It is at times overly busy, but the skill of the puppetry is what really shines through.
Divesh Subaskaran as Pi does well not to be second-fiddle to this, with a likeable and energetic portrayal, that also displays much vulnerability. Lolita Chakrabartai’s script gives him plenty of funny lines, with the supporting cast, mostly playing multiple roles, also delivering lots of laughs.
The crux of the story is a dilemma whether Pi’s story, full of drama and unlikely juxtapositions, is preferably to a more ordinary (but no less eventful) version of events; whether rationality is preferrable to wonder. This production is thoroughly wonderful, and extremely entertaining.
But being wonderful and what we might choose to believe to be true, is not the same as being real. That is the beauty of theatre, but not necessarily of life.
- Life of Pi continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 30, 2023