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‘Life of Pi’: Writer Lolita Chakrabarti finding solace in the fundamentals of life with Piscine Patel…

‘Life of Pi’:  Writer Lolita Chakrabarti finding solace in the fundamentals of life with Piscine Patel…

Have we not all been ‘shipwrecked’ emotionally to some degree by the pandemic? Is our situation not too different to the young man who finds himself adrift? ACV talks to the playwright to adapt the novel ‘Life of Pi’ to the stage…

By Sailesh Ram

IT IS ONE OF THE MOST stirring nights you could have in the London theatre we believe – and at the centre of it is an Indian boy called Piscine (Pi) Patel .

The vivid theatrical dramatisation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel, of the same title and published in 2001, is not to be missed, especially if you enjoyed the book.

Piscine (Hiren Abeysekera) is so-called, because the boy whose family look after a zoo, grows up in Pondicherry, a one-time French colony, where French and not Tamil was the official language and his eccentric father (Nicholas Khan) wants to name him after the French word for swimming pool. The family are emigrating to Canada by ship with their animals – slightly bruised by the authorities and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s iron rule in the 1970s.

Lolita Chakrabarti

There are differences between the book and the stage version. Award-winning playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation maintains the novel’s thrilling, fantastical quality without losing its philosophical and profound core.

“I loved the book – even after all these years I remembered it and how fond I was of it, so I jumped at the chance without really knowing how (to adapt it),” Chakrabarti revealed to shortly after the play’s press night last month.

The stage version premiered in Sheffield in 2019 to huge acclaim, winning four awards at the What’s On Stage UK Theatre Awards that year (including Best Play) and its transfer to the West End was delayed by covid – but finally in late November it premiered at Wyndham’s in central London.

Pisicine (Pi) Patel (Hiren Abeysekera) with the Tiger (head- Tom Larkin) and Father (Nicholas Khan) by Johan Persson

On that press evening, Chakrabarti, who is also an actor, discussed the writing process with director of the play, Max Webster and Martel.

Chakrabarti initially took what she felt were the most interesting aspects of the novel and shaped the narrative around them.

“It’s a very personal take on what I think tells the story for me – choosing the best parts – the good stories.

“I basically had a highlighter pen and went through the bits I thought were dramatically interesting and characterful and be useful; philosophy that would be useful, cut and pasted book into a document and different headings – God, family, animals, philosophy, loss, then I put together the story – the story is that the ship sinks and the boy survives,” she told acv.

Martel and Chakrabarti displayed some creative differences – most noticeably about whether certain aspects of the story are allegorical – as in believing the animals represent other humans, who surived the shipwreck along with Pi (Hiren Abeysekera), his Ma (Mira Anwar) or The Cook (Habib Naser Nader) – or it is just a story that has a fantasy adventure quality that should be enjoyed for the grand spectacle it is and not be interrogated too much. We favour the latter viewpoint but it’s a very individual position in the end.

The animals represented by the puppets are superb and there is a sense of menace that Martel demanded, Chakrabarti recounted.

Finn Caldwell, as puppetry and movement director, and his team of actors imbue the animal characters with real force and personality – and one of the early scenes between the tiger and a sacrificial live animal are difficult to watch – even if they are just puppets.

Pi with Orange Juice (Orangutan – Scarlet Wilderink) & Tom Stacy and Hyena (head – Fred Davis) by Johan Persson

Chakrabarti involved the creatives early on and enjoyed the collaborative process.

“As an actor, I am very used to working with people and love that input and really value it.”

For Chakrabarti, the story underpins important values – family, friendship, courage in adversity and the ability to adapt.

“It’s an extreme version of what we’ve all been through (in lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic). Obviously, we are not at sea and yet when you are isolated and locked in, the world is dangerous and you don’t know what is out there – what do you fall back on?”

“I think all of us have fallen back on our relationships, it’s been so crucial, apps that allow you to communicate with people and the things you fall back on are food, shelter, warmth, love and it’s true of Pi.”

Like any strong work of art, it works on different levels for different people.

“There’s always something deeper,” Chakrabarti suggested about her approach to her writing. “I want audiences primarily to have a good evening, but I also want them to be moved by it, and make them think.”

We speak against the backdrop of the terrible capsizing of migrant boats in The Channel and it is hard not to think about man against the sea in this drama most of which takes place on water.

Lulu Chen (Kirsten Foster), Mr Okaato (David KS Tse) and Pi

Chakrabarti continues to juggle writing alongside her acting. She trained as an actor and drifted into writing – if it can be put like that, frustrated somewhat by the range of roles open to her.

“It was a very different time – 31 years ago, there were limitations as a woman – and as an Asian woman and I started writing partly out of boredom and between jobs.”

Her first big play, ‘Red Velvet’ (2012) about the black Victorian actor Ira Aldridge who came to work in London from New York, won both huge critical praise and played to packed theatres in London and then later in the US. It won Chakrabarti the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright that year.

Also much acclaimed and premiered digitally by the Almeida Theatre last year was ‘Hymn’ about two (black) men who meet at a funeral and develop a friendship which is not without its fissures. The two roles were reprised by Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester, who also starred in ‘Red Velvet’ and is Chakrabarti’s husband.

Chakrabarti was unable to tell acv which of her current eight writing projects will come up into public view next (they are at different stages and she cannot talk about these publicly yet) but there’s little doubt that ‘Life of Pi’ will be popular throughout its run to May this year.

Read the review here

‘Life of Pi’ – until May 29, Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road WC2H 0DA
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture