Life of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre
Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel has wowed audiences ever since its publication in 2001. The tale of a disastrous sea voyage contains universal themes of suffering and loss, as well as resilience, strength and spirituality in the face of great adversity, pushing its protagonist to his limits.
Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel (Hiran Abeysekera) is a 16-year-old on a life-changing voyage to Canada from Pondicherry, India, amid rising political turmoil, with his parents (played by Mina Anwar and Nicholas Khan) and older sister Rani (Payal Mistry.) Travelling on the Tsimtsum vessel with their horde of animals including an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger (called Richard Parker), the ship sinks in a devastating storm, leaving young Pi alone in the Pacific Ocean, fighting for survival.
Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s script works well, though it is the striking puppetry by movement director Finn Caldwell and designer Nick Barnes that is most memorable. The coordination of the creatures is superb, with sometimes three people manoeuvring the animals. With the challenge of transferring the play to Wyndham’s from Sheffield, set designer Tim Hatley and production manager Simon Sturgess reconstructed the seats of this 1899 theatre so audiences could see all the action. Much of the tale takes place on a boat, which appears and fades beneath the floor. Similarly, when Pi jumps into the sea, a floor flap swallows him, garnering many laughs as his head reappears on the other side of the stage – an ingeniously creative touch from director Max Webster.
As Pi recounts his survival in a hospital in Mexico, the sterile space is contrasted with scenes like the hustle and bustle of an Indian bazaar and those as a castaway at sea. Stunning video projections by Andrej Goulding bring the story to life, detailing the ocean and its diversity; add the moving score by Andrew T Mackay, and one is seamlessly transported. In another magical scene that evokes the film, luminous fish are steered by puppeteers against a starry night; the only thing missing is the whale.
Although the tale is of great loss and distress, there are moments of relief through humorous one-liners that make the audience laugh more than once. Abeysekera is lithe and his comic timing excellent, all the while maintaining the danger of his volatile situation, while Habib Nasib Hader’s vocalisation of Richard Parker is perfectly nuanced with a French accent.
This stage adaptation reminds viewers that Martel’s novel is a classic in contemporary fiction, an inspiring philosophical story and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Photo: Johan Persson
Life of Pi is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 14th November until 27th February 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.