Puppets move the heart…
It was a third attempt ( like so many, it has had cancellations and suspensions), and I missed it in Sheffield 2019 through illness. So I bought any ticket I could get on a free day. Row A, bang up against the stage, thrillingly gazing up (technically a restricted-view) at enormous orang-utans and galloping zebras inches from my nose. The famous oversized Bengal tiger snarled personally in my face. I had wanted to see the puppetry, of course: Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s exquisite work, with operators uncannily sensitive to animal movement and moods, does bring such joyful suspension of disbelief that on noticing that the huge tiger has three people operating it, I found myself thinking “Well, it needs that many, to keep it under control”. As if it was working them, not vice versa.
Yann Martel’s odd fable is now famous from the novel, a Booker winner, and a CGI-rich film: its hero is an Indian teenager from Pondicherry, a sensitive dreamer who embraces all religions but maintains Hindu vegetarianism and respect for life. He is shipwrecked as his family zoo flees political trouble to safety in Canada. Orphaned and alone he survives months of a Pacific ordeal in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger called – due to a clerical error – Richard Parker . His story is told in vivid flashbacks in a hospital , to a flatfooted insurance-assessor (David KS Tse, beautifully fussy and finally human) and to a Canadian consul.
Hiran Abeysekera is a delight as the puckish Pi: childlike, deep still in trauma in the hospital to which we keep returning, but at sea with the creatures able to draw on every memory of adult advice. He hallucinates his mother, teacher, sternly realistic father and one (very funny) British naval officer explaining the manual of sea- survival. Which, not funnily at all, means the dedicated Hindu must kill a struggling turtle and feed on it alongside the tiger he has learned to dominate. It is no show for the fragile youngest.
Directed by Lolita Chakrabati and designed by Tim Hatley it is of course spectacular in staging, fast-moving and engrossing and takes every advantage of exotica : from the zoo and the colourful Indian marketplace to the wide starry Pacific night. But I had not expected to be so moved. It wasn’t so much the boy’s suffering, fiercely evoked as that is, especially in the final revelation of what really happened beyond his hallucinatory story. It was a wider shaking of the soul: an awareness of the savagery and nobility of the universe, of creatures struggling to survive with joy and purpose against all odds under the dead cosmic shine of the stars. And, in that curious parallel sensitivity more commonly felt in energetic musical-theatre, it was hard not to be aware also of the skill, thought, and design, dedication and sweat of theatremakers, players and puppeteers. Because they too are struggling for survival now.
And of course beyond that lay the very story of Pi battling alone and homesick and half dead, grieving mutilated animals and lost family, bargaining with the remorseless tiger. Hard not to think of the young in even smaller boats today in Mediterranean and Channel, survivors often of tigerish humanity. So yes, emotional.
Yann Martel would probably approve. The novelist, whose book was so eccentric and unfashionable that many publishers turned it down , said once that the story was summarized in three statements: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; and “A story with God is the better story”
Box office delfontmackintosh.co.uk To. 29 may