Review of ‘Life of Pi’: “Raw beauty”

The new stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel continues to fascinate theatregoers through its world of illusions, ideas and adventure. Guillermo Názara chronicles his experience onboard, to share his vision about one of the greatest winners of the last Olivier Awards edition.

The world isn’t just the way it is, it’s how we understand it... And just like that, in only a few words you’ve already been told everything about this show. Not only does this phrase capture the essence of its staggering plot, it’s also an accurate description of its enthralling (and much talked about) staging. Life of Pi might be the perfect example of theatrical cohesiveness – a play that philosophies about people’s perception, while depicting its world through the eyes of ever-flowing imagination. Child-like wonder meets face to face with the cruel savageness of reality, once again honouring its themes and title by aesthetically providing us with the very core of the human journey.

Opening in a remote hospital room somewhere in Mexico, survivor Piscine Molitor Patel (aka Pi) is visited by two bureaucrats reporting on the shipwreck he has surprisingly escaped from. Through whimisically painted scenes and witty observations on society’s conventions, our lead will then take us along the key moments of his existence, all the way to his frightening encounter with fatality. From that point on, all that you once assumed can be put on hold – as the play (and the whole production for that matter) is an embellished glistening study on the relativity of things.

Seemingly naïve but extremely cunning, Pi shows off the purity of that innocent intelligence which has not yet been polluted by cultural expectations. The main motif of the entire script can easily be reduced to one single word : “why”. For many things that we take for granted are not that obvious or necessarily true, and sometimes it’s nice (and advisable) to be reminded of such through the vision of others – even when those come from fiction. Effectively underlining all of the novel’s major topics, the play relies on a well-crafted libretto, all the time maintaning brilliant pace and taking us into a journey of joy, surprise and horror (that’s life, isn’t it?) in a fast-moving carousel composed by very powerful scenes.

Being the narrative one of its most evident strengths, I guess that you don’t even need go see the show to be aware that it’s the scenery that brings the house down on every performance. And I’m not referring to sets of extreme complexity or cluttered with props. In fact, the design is rather simple, but however contradictory this may sound, it’s mesmerizingly intricate. With the use of mainly just two walls and a boat perimeter, we’re taken to all sorts of places – both from above and under water, both from reality and from fantasy.

The bounds between the latter get in fact blurred with the use of Nick Barnes and Fild Caldwell’s astonishingly gorgeous (and at the same, surprisingly life-like) puppets, ranging from plain two-sheeted butterflies to elaborated works of engineering as the orangutan, the zebra and, of course, the bengal tiger. Here we can see nature in its clearest form – magnificently beautiful but also terrifyingly crude. Elegance and charm are a part of it as so are violence and disgust – and that’s depictedly in such a shocking way, you’ll find yourself sometimes lured and deterred to watch at the very same time. Additionally, the use of mapping and lighting effects once again erase all obvious lines between both worlds, making some of the illusions so efficient you may hear your own memories gasp.

Starring Hiran Abeysekera in the title role, the last piece in the puzzle is its company, working flawlessly as a team, or even a family – as the remarkable chemistry among all the performers brings out the feeling that their sole focus and care is not themselves as actors, but the show they belong to. Apart from Hiran’s charming interpretation, exuding astonishing stamina and spontaneity, the biggest accomplishment is the wowing recreation of the animals, especially Pi’s co-lead, Richard Parker (that is to say, the tiger). Operated by three different player at once, Tom Larkin excells as the beast’s head, not only providing it with movement but also incredibly realistic non-prerecorded sounds. The attention to the detail is such that it even dives into the subtlest gestures of the menacing (yet sympathetic) creature, including when the spotlight is drawn from him.

Life of Pi may be one of those rare shows everyone likes for all different reasons – and some even for all of them. For those who have read the novel or are looking for a play that challenges philosophical values, you’ll be content. For those who seek spectacle and jaw-dropping effects, this is your place. For those who want that next level of experience – well, search no further. Here comes a production that truly deserves to make of the West End its permanent home. And just like the reporters are offered in the play, you’ll be facing the dilemma or whether to buy or not what you’re seeing. I chose to believe, although trust me, there’s no much room for choice.

5/5 stars.

Life of Pi is performed at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre from Wednesday to Monday. Tickets can be purchased on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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