Life of Pi – Review – Sheffield Crucible
By Eve Luddington, July 2019
Knowing the story, I asked someone at the Crucible how they were going to fit an ocean into the theatre for Life of Pi. When I saw their production, I was astonished. The sea is an ever-changing wash of luscious lighting and sound effects, producing raging storms and exquisite moments of still blue calm which accentuate the action and its vastly ranging moods.
I guessed that the cast of wild animals would be life-size puppets but not that they would be operated by 12 actors who play all the human characters too, other than Pi himself. The Puppetry and Movement Director, Finn Caldwell says in the programme notes, ‘Every movement of (the) puppet is meaningful in terms of the story and emotion and character’. He’s right.
For this stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 prize-winning novel, Sheffield Crucible has assembled a fantastically imaginative creative team and a versatile cast headed by Hiran Abeyesekera as Pi, and directed by Max Webster. The result is spectacular and thought-provoking.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation is a masterpiece of storytelling theatre which successfully dramatises Martel’s exploration of fear, the nature and meaning of storytelling, and the juxtaposition of facts and belief. It’s also a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre, served magnificently by the Crucible’s open stage with its revolves and trapdoors, and a brilliant design team which conjures up a zoo, complete with a menagerie of wild animals, the heat and bustle of an Indian street market, a ship’s exterior and, most impressively, the vast ocean in its many moods.
The action begins in a Mexican hospital in 1978, a setting which frames the production, where a 17 year-old Indian boy, Pi, is recovering from spending 227 days at sea, the only survivor of a shipping disaster. Trying to elicit from him precisely what happened are two officials, Lulu Chen (Gabby Wong) and Mr Okamoto (David K.S. Tee).
We are swept along by swift episodic scenes establishing the backstory, accompanied by Tim Lutkin’s lively score. Pi brings to life his family and its zoo, Pi’s desire for personal and spiritual growth, and the febrile political and religious climate of India in 1977 which causes Pi’s father to uproot his family and some of the zoo animals, notably a tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker, to Canada. They never arrive because their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean.
From this point, the action returns intermittently to the hospital. Much to Mr. Okamoto’s frustration, no-one can verify or disprove the incredible tale Pi now lives through with vast tides of emotion. Hiran Abeysekera communicates beautifully Pi’s hazardous journey from a place of innocence and spiritual curiosity towards strength and self-belief.
“Vast array of emotions”
Video projections transform walls into sky and the floor into the sea from which emerges a lifeboat. Pi thinks he’s all alone in the middle of the Pacific with a small box of provisions. But he’s not: there’s an orang utan and a zebra too, and a hyena which dispatches them and then eyes up Pi. As they confront each other, the tiger called Richard Parker appears behind Pi. It’s the most ferocious killer in the zoo.
Dramatically, this tense moment is the perfect place for an interval. It gives the audience time to recover and to remember that this creature, in all its ‘fearful symmetry’ symbolic of Pi’s mental as well as physical danger, is a puppet operated by actors.
The movement and dynamic between these actors and Abeysekera powerfully communicates the battle for dominance between Richard Parker and Pi, once the tiger has dispatched the hyena. Abeysekera conveys a vast array of emotions with utter belief.
All Pi’s fears are symbolised by that tiger. Pi flees his fear by leaping into the sea (with a theatrical trick which made me gasp), then fights it by conjuring up ghosts to challenge and advise him. Though he weakens physically, and his tale tends towards hallucination, his confrontation and taming of the tiger allows him to grow spiritually, until he can say ‘I love you, Richard Parker,’ and the tiger seems to reciprocate.
Holding the knowledge that ‘this is just a story’ but believing it at the same time is fundamental to many theatrical experiences. In Life of Pi, where a man lost at sea on a boat may be a metaphor for life’s journey, and a tiger for facing and overcoming fear, it conveys a spiritual message too. Sheffield Crucible’s production unites script, direction, design and performance to produce a whole which left me awed and inspired.
images: Johan Persson