By now, we know better than to question the powers of theatre folk when it comes to staging seemingly impossible-to-stage adaptations, but Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi – a story about a teenage boy lost at sea with a Bengal tiger for 227 days – feels like a particularly formidable prospect. Even more so when considering Ang Lee’s visually astounding, Oscar-winning film adaptation. Definitely a tough act to follow.
The success of Lolita Chakrabarti’s production at the Wyndham’s Theatre is owed first and foremost to Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, whose menagerie of puppets breathe life into the play’s four-legged beasts. Caldwell worked previously on the critically acclaimed War Horse, and Life of Pi’s animals are similarly, almost eerily lifelike. Giraffes swoop their windy necks low. Goats buck and shake with cheeky personality. When a gust of butterflies flutter on stage, you can almost see the air shifting beneath their wings.
It’s in the second half that one is able to really appreciate the artistry at play here. Manipulated by three puppeteers responsible for head, heart and hind, the tiger of Life of Pi is astonishing. The eye quickly dismisses the handlers, who are dressed in anodyne shades of beige and grey, to focus solely on the tiger’s movements. Big and small. When it leaps in attack, the theatre shakes. Every flick of the tail and padding of paws somehow carries the same weight as the real thing. In quieter moments, the rise and fall of his chest is almost imperceptible. The result is an animal so life-like that when Pi – starving and desperate – tries eating the tiger’s faeces, the audience recoils in disgust.
Hiran Abeysekera lends the role of Pi a similar physicality. Under Max Webster’s direction, the actor plays the impish teenager with boyish athleticism. He doesn’t walk. He bounds, leaps and vaults. In doing so, he connects the action of wild waters to the sterile hospital room from where he is relaying the story.
The production falters, however, in its script. Characters, including Pi’s family, feel two-dimensional, styrofoam facsimiles of Martel’s original creations. The novel’s internal dialogue has likewise been flattened in the adaptation process. Pi’s subtle, philosophical musings are steamrolled into throwaway diversions about God and religion that never take off. While certainly it is difficult to condense all of that into a two-hour play already bursting at the seams, one can’t help but feel the absence of that nuance.
But no sooner do you miss it than you are distracted by another element of the play’s sublime set, which seems to unfold perpetually as layers, each more stunning than the last. Set designer Tim Hatley creates an impressive stage malleable to the movement of lighting and video (Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding). Within moments, the stage undulates in volatile waters, glimmers in pearly sands, and calcifies in the fluorescent lights of a hospital room.
There are hearty elements lacking in the production’s storytelling, but they are hard to care about when your focus is continuously being pulled to such fantastical stagecraft. Life of Pi is a magic eye trick that never lets you look too long at its flaws.
‘Life of Pi’ runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 27 February
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