Just a boy and his Bengal tiger

“YOU scare me, but when I am with you, I feel better,” says Pi to Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. Photograph courtesy National Theatre Live.

VERY OCCASIONALLY, THE world offers you an experience which is so utterly perfect in how it touches you, intellectually and spiritually, emotionally and with quirkiness, that it will change how you look at the world. This is what you can expect in the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s beautiful novel, Life of Pi, performed for and filmed by National Theatre Live and on the silver screen at Cinema Nouveau in South Africa until the end of August.

Like Salman Rushdie’s anthology Haroun of the Sea, the work blends a fresh understanding of magical realism with caveats about being alive in the world, that earned it popular attention when it was first published in 2002. However, the theatrical version of this piece gives to the yarn what Ang Lee’s film of it in 2012, could not, with all of its technological bells and whistles.

Lolita Chakrabarti weaves together elements of the text to create something that can exist within a small stage. And the animals are complex puppets make of simple material. The impact? It will indeed make you believe in God, as the text dictates. But more than that, it will make you believe in the God that gives theatre its true magic.

There are moments in this production where you may struggle to believe that this is a stage work. The lighting, the videography, the coordination of movement and story are conducted with such wisdom and precision that it will sweep you off your seat. There is no ‘pretending’ to be a goat called Buckingham or a zebra called Black and White here: the puppets are an amalgam of how bones and muscles move, of personality and emotion. At least three puppeteers give each puppet the coherence that gives them life. The stage is small, but the world that it casts is enormous.

Resonant of what Alan Swerdlow and Sarah Roberts did with the National Children’s Theatre’s production of The Hobbit earlier this year, Life of Pi is made of flotsam and jetsam of wood, puppetry skills and beautiful storytelling. It is only about technology insofar as that technology is allowed to support the hand-made elements.

It’s the story of Pi (Hiran Abeysekera), the teenaged son to a man who dreams of owning a circus, but lands up owning a very big zoo in India. His prize acquisition is a magnificent Bengal tiger which bureaucratic confusion names as Richard Parker. Political shenanigans encourage the family to leave the country and resettle in Canada. But providence prevails and the ship, replete with all the animals in the zoo, is wrecked. Pi is the sole human survivor.

Along the narrative lines of novels of the ilk of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, the scene is set in a sanatorium, after the event. It’s about madness and trauma, damage and hunger, but not without a sense of wit and manipulation. And the tale is told retrospectively, for the sake of the man who needs facts for insurance purposes.

The shifts between the drama of the sea and the clinical space of the ward are astonishing and flawless. As is the shift between the magical story of zoo animals at large in a small boat with a brave young man, and a story which might hold more water for the solemn insurance bloke. It’s a work which touches all your nerves – even the ones you haven’t used since you were a wide-eyed child.

The production is divided by an interval, which features an interview with some of the creative muscle in this work. The first half is more playful and chaotic and the second, leads into the deep heart of the work itself, leaving you, in the audience changed as you would be from sipping of a holy chalice.

Change all your plans: the season of this extraordinary work is very brief.

  • Life of Pi is written by Yann Martel, adapted for stage by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster. It features a cast headed by Hiran Abeysekera, Mina Anwar, Sagar Arya, Alex Chang, Fred Davis, Tom Espiner, Kirsten Foster, Daisy Franks, Raj Ghatak, Nuwan Hugh Perera, Romina Hytten, Sarah Kameela Impey, Tom Larkin, David KS Tse, Syreeta Kumar, Deeivya Meir, Habib Nasib Nader and Scarlet Wilderink. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Finn Caldwell (puppetry and movement), Tim Hatley (set and costumes), Nick Barnes (puppets), Andrzej Goulding (videography), Tim Lutkin (lighting), Carolyn Downing (sound), Andrew Mackay (composer) and Polly Jerrold (casting). It is produced by Simon Friend in association with Playing Field and Robert Bartner. It is on screen in South Africa until 31 August.

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