Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi has enjoyed critical acclaim since 2001, in part thanks to its reputation as a modern novel of ‘accessible philosophy’. Staged originally in Sheffield, Max Webster’s theatre adaption has now found itself relocated to London’s Wyndham Theatre for a Christmas run, aided by unbelievable work from Puppet Director Finn Caldwell, and esoteric, transportive Set and Costume Design from Tim Hatley.
Alas, Martel’s quasi-fairytale about a 17 year old boy trapped in a lifeboat with escapee zoo animals — most notably the marvellously-named, golden-bodied Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger — relies heavily on its remarkable visuals to carry off Chakrabarti’s rather stiff, utilitarian script. Intensely beautiful, and masterfully arranged on the stage, the performances themselves never quite equal their setting, in much the same way that a cheap print would look a little out of a place in a Medici family frame. Pi’s Abeysekera gives a thorough impression of neuroticism and trauma, but doesn’t quite have the actorly heft to make any of the more philosophical, transcendent moments ring true. Wide-eyed, not quite innocent, he’s a difficult sell in a play focused so much around a single performance.
In better news, Tom Espiner is outstanding as a comic, thoroughly British representative of modern, postcolonial India, in the role of Pi’s father. His deep, sombre baritone contrasts intensely with the vocal weightlessness of his cast-mates, and lends a genuine levity and family feeling that’s keenly needed. It also falls to Espiner to introduce and repeatedly reemphasise a political bent — “Look what our government is doing!” — more generally absent from Martel’s novel. It is a shame that Chakrabarti’s script is so light on the detail of what, exactly, the “government” has done to wrong the Patel family so much. Is historical context assumed? If so, it’s a risky assumption, since The Emergency is never mentioned — and nor is Indira Gandhi.
The best of Life of Pi is consistently found in its more visual moments. The scene in which Pi and Richard Parker contest their dominance over the lifeboat is breathtakingly physical, as is an all-too-brief moment in which both lay back in the boat, admiring stars. Perhaps finest of all is one of the final seafaring vistas, in which Pi and Richard Parker, entirely reconciled to one another, feast on a sea turtle. These moments, though, are few and far between — far more time is dedicated to reciting a script from which almost all of Martel’s philosophical obsessions have been stripped. Is Life of Pi beloved because it’s a remarkable story, as Webster’s production suggests? Or is it beloved because of the ruminative, theological quandaries of its central character, here mostly absent? Well — your milage may vary.
All things considered, Life of Pi is well worth seeing — especially if you’d like to watch for yourself one of the most aesthetically-accomplished London productions since Logan’s Red. Is it great theatre — hell, is it a great story? It’s nebulous. Max Webster provokes wonder — but does he provoke real thought, or any kind of religious revelation? I suspect that a better script, with such a lovingly-assembled production, might have done.
- Based on the novel by Yann Martel, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti
- Director: Max Webster
- Photographer: Johan Persson
- Cast includes: Hiran Abeysekera, Mina Anwar, Tom Espiner
- Wyndham Theatre
- Until 27 February 2022
- Running time: 2hrs 05 mins, including interval