Theatre Review: Life of Pi

Words by Melissa Blease
Image credit: Johan Persson
Showing at Theatre Royal Bath until 25 May

Midway through the last decade of the last millennium, Canadian author Yann Martel got chatting to a man called Francis Adirubasamy in a coffee shop. Adirubasamy told Martel he had a story that would make Martel believe in God… and that story became the inspiration for Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi: a behemoth bestseller that’s sold 15m+ copies worldwide to date, earned Martel multiple prestigious literary awards (including the 2002 Man Booker Prize) and, in 2012, was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee.

Whether or not the stage version of the fantastical tale of an Indian teenager lost at sea after a shipwreck with only a Bengal tiger for company will make you believe in God is subject to much philosophical debate. But one thing is certain: this Sheffield Theatres production, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster, is one of those live-on-stage experiences that, once seen, you’ll never, ever forget.

Faith, love, survival; courage, dreams, hope; love, grief, trauma; horror, terror, the power of the intellect… and beauty: no human consideration is left unconsidered in this sublime, almost transcendental escapade. But even if you tuck your sentimental sensibilities under your seat with your coat, the techniques and technicalities involved in bringing such a complex tale to fully immersive life are, quite simply, exquisite; from a ramshackle zoo in the south Indian coastal town of Pondicherry in the 1970s to a bleak hospital ward in Winnipeg via a vibrant Indian street market, a cargo ship and the vast, isolated swathes of a starlit Pacific Ocean, we are with Pi, following an incredible adventure at every step of the way.

Supported by a super-tight ensemble of characters each with their own strong, relatable personalities, Adwitha Arumugam is as gloriously, eccentrically, passionately charismatic as we need the lead character to be. But the animals are the real stars of the show, with Finn Caldwell/Nick Barnes puppetry and immaculately-choreographed movement bringing captivating life to a menagerie of creatures great and small, and Richard Parker (if you know, you know; if you don’t know, you’ll never forget him once you learn who he is) fully deserving of his spotlight role.

Handing the reins back to those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground rather than allowing their imaginations to guide their judgment for a moment, it could be said that the storyline is way too whimsical to stand up to academic analysis. But beneath the slightly fuzzy, out-of-focus surreality of the saga, there are some hard-hitting, real life deliberations at play here too; we’re given a frontline snapshot of the effects of PTSD, for example and, perhaps, there’s a nod to the cause and effect of Stockholm Syndrome.

But do you want to feed your senses on a diet of cold, hard, pedagogical facts or would you prefer to take a far more beautiful path to holistic fulfilment? I was holistically fulfilled by this production of Life of Pi – in fact, I can fully understand where Francis Adirubasamy was coming from, when he told his story to Yann Martel.