Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

An amazing technical achievement: Life of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre reviewed

Plus: why does the acclaimed play Straight White Men use black performers as window dressing?

The lighting effects are dazzling, the flat wooden stage coming alive and turning into a rippling, moving body of water: Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi. Image: Johan Persson

Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi is a complicated organism. The action starts in southern India where we meet a precocious teenager, Piscine, who tells his parents that he wants to be known as Pi. The family own a failing zoo and they buy a Bengal tiger to attract fresh customers. The new arrival promptly rips the head off Pi’s pet goat and eats it. Next they take a ship to Canada, with the zoo stowed in the luggage hold, but the vessel hits stormy weather. The beasts break out of their cages and start to eat each other. And when the ship sinks, Pi finds himself on a life raft alongside an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, and the Bengal tiger.

These spectacular scenes are tricky enough for a novelist to describe but to put them on stage seems an act of madness. How could a designer create the props and special effects required to make this sprawling and chaotic action work? Well, the miracle happened. Tim Hatley, along with puppeteers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, have laid on a stunning array of models and lighting tricks. The inmates of the zoo seem to be living, breathing, sweating animals. (The larger beasts are more convincing than the smaller ones because their bulk obscures the puppeteers as they work the illusion.)

The inmates of the zoo seem to be living, breathing, sweating animals

The star is the tiger. We first see him as he prowls on stage and eyes up the unsuspecting goat. A deeply sinister encounter. Later, on the life raft, he experiences a variety of emotions. Anger, bemusement, disorientation and raging hunger. Then, after a meal of fish, he lapses into satiety and sleepfulness. These moods are so brilliantly conveyed that the tiger seems human. Pi realises that he must dominate his companion or be eaten by him so he blows a whistle and waves an oar aggressively in his face.

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