STAGE REVIEW: Life of Pi @ Theatre Royal, Newcastle (24.01.24) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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How can Life of Pi possibly work on stage? Anyone who’s read Yann Martel’s epic story or seen Davie Magee and Ang Lee’s 2012 memorable film adaptation will naturally be curious, concerned and a little sceptical. It’s a beloved tale that needs careful, skilful handling. Pi is an extraordinary young man – make sure you get him right. Please.

At the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, it worked – more than just worked, it was phenomenal. Lolita Chakrabati, adapter of Life of Pi for the theatre, has created a whole new enchanting world on stage in collaboration with her cohesive creative team, a fantastical world where everything – actors, puppets, lighting, visuals, sound, set, props and music – come together to each play their vital part in drawing the audience into this brutal yet beautiful realm.

Divesh Subaskaran’s professional debut as Piscine Patel is remarkable, a joy to witness. He portrays ‘this person of magical thinking’ (as described by Chakrabati) with just the right amount of joyful exuberance, touching naïveté and searching curiosity. Enthralled, the audience beholds his epic journey change him inside and out, as the realities of a harsh, cruel, hostile world crash into his sheltered paradise at the Pondicherry Zoo and he has to battle to survive as a lonely castaway in a harsh oceanic wilderness.

The puppet animals come magically alive, guided by – or maybe channelled through – the expert hands of Puppetry and Movement Director Finn Caldwell and his team. From the simple butterflies to the mother and baby orangutan, from the gentle turtle to the majestic Bengal tiger, each movement is carefully considered and superbly executed through the actors’ hands and bodies. You know these wonderful beasts are not real and yet you’re mesmerised, drawn in with awe and wonder to the impact of the illusion. The actors inhabit the crafted shell of the wild beast that is the talking tiger Richard Parker, moving as one, breathing as one, producing animal sounds as one. The ever present puppeteers fade into background in their muted colours, as attention is drawn towards the glorious animal, transfixed on the angle of the head, the slow licking of the paw… Creating an audience connection with a puppet is a strange alchemy: I can’t explain it, I just know it’s there – not just the wonder but the sense of danger and threat that is never far away. These are wild animals and we are never allowed to forget that.

As Pi’s investigative interview about the sinking of the Tsimtsum draws to a conclusion, his interrogator and the audience are left with more questions than answers. After all, what is truth? Pi is the ultimate unreliable narrator. So what is the best version of the story? What is real? And beyond that, even if you feel able to reach your own conclusions, there are deeper questions. How can this delightful tale hold such pain, loss and brutality? How can a shining soul like Pi survive in a heartless, dangerous world? What does Pi lose of himself to become a ruthless survivor? And how does this speak into our lives as we navigate this beautiful yet brutal world?

There’s a part of me that just wants to sit with the vivid memories of an enchanting stage production and to push these uncomfortable questions to one side, but that would not do justice to the consummate writing, staging and acting of this incredible tale. See it for yourself and be prepared to have your worldview challenged: such is the power of this magical production.

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