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Life of Pi review: A lush visual spectacle delivered with wondrous cinematic fluidity

Theatre: The dialogue may feel leaden, but Max Webster’s production more than compensates

Life of Pi

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

Who is the most dangerous animal in the world? Man, of course, proclaims Pi Patel’s zoologist father (Ralph Birtwell) as his family and menagerie are driven out of India by civil unrest. When the cargo ship charged with taking the Patels to Canada sinks, 17-year-old Pi (Divesh Subaskaran) – a philosopher at heart – finds the truth of his father’s worldview confirmed. However, he must also fight against that brutal reality if he wants to live with it. Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 book, enacts a battle of world views as it stages Pi’s fight for survival.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s play opens at the end of Pi’s journey. From a hospital bed in Mexico, he narrates his extraordinary trip across the Pacific, on a lifeboat, with a Bengal tiger. The hospital walls open up to reveal the lush landscape of the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens and its various inhabitants. If the dialogue feels lifeless and leaden, the visual spectacle of Max Webster’s production more than compensates, unfolding with a rich and restless cinematic fluidity. Evocative locations evolve and are whisked away by a multifunctional cast of almost 20, who bring boats and animals, hospital wards and humans to life. Lighting design from Tim Lutkin and Tim Deiling and video design from Andrzej Goulding are crucial to the immersive atmosphere, coming into their own on the rough high seas.

Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppets, meanwhile – multi-limbed mammals that appear to be carved from driftwood – are an Olivier-award-winning wonder. From big bodies such as Black and White the Zebra stomping across the stage to tiny meerkats in the arboreal background, they are emotionally expressive and physically dexterous. Nowhere is this more true than in the characterisation of Pi’s tiger companion: his nemesis and saviour, Richard Parker, who embodies first danger and, eventually, the primal delicacy of life.

It is inevitable that the human characters cannot compete with the compelling creatures, who become an embodied metaphor for the broader philosophical questions at the heart of this remarkable tale. “Which is the better story?” Pi asks his interlocutors as the true details of his extraordinary journey begin to emerge in the final scene. “The one with animals or the one without?” Chakrabarti’s script insists on giving us an answer, but it is an unnecessary one.


Life of Pi is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday, March 2nd

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer