The Life of Pi
Based on the gripping narrative of the novel, Life of Pi unfolds after a devastating shipwreck leaves five survivors stranded on a lifeboat in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Among them are a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a sixteen-year-old boy, and a formidable 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
As they face the test of time and the relentless challenges of nature, the ultimate question arises: who will triumph against all odds?
This extraordinary production has already received high praise, earning five Olivier Awards in April 2022.
Notably, Hiran Abeysekera, who played the role of Pi, won Best Actor, while the seven performers who brought the puppet tiger Richard Parker to life received a historic collective award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
The production also garnered recognition for its stunning set design by Tim Hatley, Nick Barnes, and Finn Caldwell, as well as the mesmerising lighting design by Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding.
To delve deeper into the play and its global phenomenon, we caught up with Lolita Chakrabarti, the visionary behind the adaptation, and Finn Caldwell, the puppet and movement director.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s Vision
Lolita Chakrabarti, the visionary behind the adaptation, expresses her gratitude to Yann Martel for entrusting his remarkable story to her and the creative team.
In conversation with I Love Manchester, Lolita reflects on what drew her to the novel and the challenges she faced during the adaptation process.
She emphasises the universal appeal of the story, tackling themes of struggle, suffering, survival, and hope that resonates with people of all ages. Lolita’s focus on relationships, storytelling, and emotional transformation ensures a powerful and immersive experience for the audience.
Speaking about her connection to the novel, Lolita said, “I think what drew me into the novel when I first read it back in 2002 is that I had no idea where it was going. I was drawn to the vastness of the story and its intense nature. It had a visceral quality that kept me engaged throughout. I had no idea where it was heading.
“The book’s ability to surprise and leave readers questioning what actually happened stayed with me. It left a lasting impression. So when I was approached to adapt it in 2016, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. There are very few books that have that kind of impact.
Regarding the adaptation process, Lolita explains, “I focused on the relationships, the storytelling, and the overall structure.
“Emotionally, there needs to be a complete shift from the beginning to the end. It’s quite a simple breakdown when you think about it. Then it’s about the characters, some of whom I altered in terms of gender or combined, in order to tell the story I envisioned.
Lolita believes that the story’s universal appeal lies in its exploration of struggle, suffering, survival, and hope.
She said, “These are experiences that everyone can relate to, regardless of age.
“From a young age, we learn to cope with pain and overcome challenges. As we grow older, our perspective on these experiences changes. Everyone has faced suffering, struggled, and survived to some extent.”
“Although the scale may differ, the play allows audiences to see themselves within it.
“Additionally, it explores themes of family and loss, which resonates with many people.
“The play itself has delightful moments, blending philosophy, humour, and storytelling. It immerses the audience in beautiful visuals and offers a variety of emotional elements.”
Finn Caldwell and the Art of Puppetry
One of the incredible elements of this production is the use of puppetry to bring Richard Parker, the imposing Bengal tiger, to life.
Finn Caldwell, the puppet movement director and co-designer, sheds light on the decision to employ this medium and its impact on the storytelling.
Explaining their choice, Finn shares, “We contemplated other possibilities, such as having one person in a suit representing the animal.
“You get the blank canvas of the stage, and the possibilities are endless. However, once Max Webster, the director, and I joined the project, the concept evolved.
“I can’t imagine it any other way now. The puppetry adds an element of unpredictability and creates an eerie and extraordinary atmosphere.”
Finn further elaborates, “Puppetry works really well for talking about a story where you’re talking about making up stories.
“It adds that layer of ‘make-believe,’ which is a metaphor for Pi. You’re not quite sure if he’s telling the truth, and it leaves you to make up your mind about proceedings. Is it real or not?”
Finn emphasises the immense physicality exhibited by the actors in portraying their characters.
He said: “I’m a big believer in what Brecht said, that Theatre should be like football.
“Although I’m not personally a fan of football, I appreciate the intense passion that people bring to sports.
“The unreserved enthusiasm, energy, and dedication displayed by athletes is something I find truly exciting. In contrast, theatre often tends to be more reserved and polite. I believe we should embrace that same level of passion in our theatrical performances. When I used to perform, I felt that if the entire cast wasn’t a little sweaty by the end, it didn’t feel like we had truly given it our all.
“I wouldn’t really feel like we’d earned our money.
“What I’m trying to convey is that when actors engage in physically demanding actions while portraying emotionally rich stories, something incredibly powerful happens.
“Witnessing the body exert itself and strive to accomplish something physically challenging while conveying an emotional narrative creates a potent and impactful experience.
“You really feel the energy they are putting into things and that draws the audience in.”
Reflecting on the challenges faced during the production, Finn reveals, “The first one was the tiger. We needed to figure out how to make it appear frightening and fast. The second significant challenge arose in the second half when the story takes place at sea. We had to find a solution for that.”
Finn concludes, “To tackle these challenges, we relied heavily on exceptional set design, remarkable video work by Andre Goulding, and the collective commitment to imaginative storytelling. The combination of these elements, along with the presence of both the tiger and the boy engaging in physical theatre, transports us to a different world.”
With its gripping narrative, exceptional performances, and innovative use of puppetry, this adaptation promises an unforgettable journey of survival and imagination.
Life of Pi is on at The Lowry from 5 Dec 2023 – 7 Jan 2024. Book tickets now to witness the remarkable artistry that has enthralled audiences and received acclaim from all corners of the theatre world.