Kate Griffin reviews the award-winning play Life of Pi at Wales Millennium Centre
How can anyone survive over 200 days lost at sea? It’s an unbelievable feat, and it comes with an even more unbelievable story. 16-year-old Pi explains that he has spent the best part of a year stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean…with a Bengal tiger as his companion.
The authorities demand hard facts from the boy in the hospital bed. But Pi, full name Piscine Molitor Patel, doesn’t want to answer questions that way. He wants to tell his story in a way that lets us feel exactly what he went through: the desperation, determination, horror and hope.
This breathtaking production sees Divesh Subaskaran make his acting debut in the title role. And what a debut. His physical energy is boundless, whether he’s leaping in joy, fleeing for his life or single-handedly fighting a tiger with an oar as his only weapon. And his stage presence is utterly compelling. We are completely invested in Pi and the survival of his beautiful spirit.
But it is the staging and the puppetry that makes Life of Pi an unmissable experience. This play is partly about how violent nature can be in the struggle for survival, and some of the blood-and-guts moments had everyone wincing. A key puppeteer skill is to disappear into the background to direct focus elsewhere, and this talented team are world-class at this. Richard Parker, the badly named but ferocious tiger, was played by three people on the night your reviewer was there: Sebastian Goffin, Kate Rowsell and Antony Antunes. Between them they breathed life into this ferocious, charismatic beast while making themselves invisible. (Antony Antunes also played the brutish ship’s cook, helping us to link different strands of Pi’s experience.)
Life of Pi is a play about the stories we tell ourselves and others. Do we actually prefer bare facts or is the emotional reality of an experience more important? The overwhelming sensory impact of the staging is key to getting this message across. For example, the depiction of water is so realistic that at points it’s hard to believe the Millennium Centre hasn’t turned the stage into a mini swimming pool. But it vanishes in an instant as we return to the framing device of Pi telling his story in an empty hospital room. If something so vivid and visible can disappear before our eyes, how can we trust the evidence of our own senses? How can we trust anything? At one point Pi challenges the woman interviewing him, who doesn’t believe his story. He points out that shipwrecks exist, tigers exist and lifeboats exist. Just because she hasn’t personally seen the three combined, that doesn’t mean that his story can’t happen. Which seems like a fair point, until you remember other outlandish parts of the story, like the orangutan floating up to join him on a raft of bananas…
Many people will be familiar with Life of Pi because of the 2012 film, or perhaps the 2001 novel. But the play is a triumph in its own right. Since it premiered in Sheffield in 2019, it has already won five Olivier Awards, including Best New Play and Best Set Design. There are probably many more awards to come for this outstanding adaptation of a strange but profound story.
Life of Pi continues at Wales Millennium Centre until October 21. For ticket availability visit Wales Millennium Centre’s website.