Bestseller though it is – 10 million copies and counting – it’s fair to say that “Life of Pi,” the extraordinary story of a shipwrecked 17-year-old who did (or maybe didn’t) spend 227 days at sea with no one for company but a Bengal tiger, doesn’t exactly cry out to be staged. Yet since Yann Martel’s novel (previously adapted into a 2012 film by Ang Lee) is really all about belief, theater — entirely predicated on audiences’ belief — turns out to be a potentially ideal fit. And so it proves: “Life of Pi” is fantastical, and director Max Webster’s extraordinary West End production is fantastic.
Dramatist Lolita Chakrabarti slightly re-orders proceedings, opening with the novel’s final section in which Japanese insurance man Mr. Okamoto (David K.S. Tse) and Canadian government figure Kirsten Foster (Lulu Chen) try to get to the bottom of Pi’s story. How come he was washed up on the Mexican shore so very long after being shipwrecked from a Japanese freighter en route to Canada?
From there on, the story zips back to the beginning with young Pi and his family struggling with the increasingly repressive government. Pi is smart and blithely engaging with every available religion — Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — before his family decide to leave India, boarding the ship, only to meet an unexpected fate.
Chakrabarti then cuts back and forth between Pi’s bleached-out, bland hospital room and the riotously colorful, vivid scenes of his life as the son of Indian zookeepers (complete with giraffe, zebra, monkey and the longed-for tiger accidentally named Richard Parker) and his perilous journey. Instead of those cuts sapping the storytelling of energy, they actually charge it up. They break the monotony of Pi’s life on the boat but, in addition, every shift back and forward in time allows audiences to be constantly entranced once again by the magical transitions between the worlds, thanks to the magnificent meshing of every single element of the design team.
Pitched somewhere between “War Horse” and “The Lion King” but with an aesthetic all its own, designer Tim Hatley’s sets are never cute, always creative. Transferring the show from the 999-seat thrust stage of regional theater powerhouse Sheffield Crucible, he has built out a thrust stage into the orchestra of the West End house, with a box of beguiling design tricks built into it.
Refreshingly, instead of using 21st century technical wizardry borrowed from film, Hatley uses old-fashioned theater techniques incorporating the actors’ bodies, a turntable, cunningly versatile wooden set-pieces and amusingly hidden trapdoors.
The visibility of his techniques is mirrored by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s magnificent puppets, with two or three puppeteers clearly visible beneath the huge constructions who, due to the grace and conviction of the compelling movement, seem to vanish before the audience’s eyes. The prowling tiger always feels alarmingly dangerous; when the hyena attacks, the audience gasps.
Director Webster holds those elements in constantly fascinating balance, aided by Andrew T. Mackay’s highly effective score and Carolyn Downing’s sound design, which is one part atmosphere, one part accentuation and one part punctuation of the action.
The last of these is equally well-controlled by Tim Lutkin’s lighting, which ranges from black light for shoals of glowing, actor-held fish to mood-enhancing, super-saturated colors conveying temperature, both emotional and literal. Lutkin shifts time and location via snap changes that transform the space, which is painted with similar skill by Andrzej Goulding’s ravishingly suggestive, light-touch video work. Like everything else in the production, this adds to the imaginative drama by almost always resisting literal representation.
Ultimately, however, above and beyond the design team, the evening stands and falls on the Pi of Hiran Abeysekera. Lean, bright-eyed and startlingly dynamic, he leaps and lunges, cavorts and cries his way through the role with dazzling ease, whether shuddering at the memory of his experience or, at the height of the storm, being borne aloft by Caldwell’s superbly choreographed ensemble for whom the word “deft” was invented.
Because the internal monologue that a novel offers has to be turned into direct speech, Martell’s original, philosophical debate doesn’t always sit easily within the action. But what you lose in contemplative metaphysical questioning, you gain in the astonishing, constantly surprising magic of the show’s sheer theatricality. Pi’s journey was 227 days. This run — and, one immediately assumes, others worldwide — are likely to be a great deal longer.