A tiny theatre company in Bradford is the only one in the world allowed to stage the novel Life of Pi – and last week the author was in the audience to see a performance. Arts reporter Nick Ahad reports.
Life of Pi is a spectacular novel, a stunning insight into religion and a fable for the modern world.
The author Yann Martel has produced something that is vast – how else can you describe a story that sees a boy (Pi) shipwrecked on a lifeboat with only the ocean and a collection of animals, including a tiger, for company? – and at the same time compellingly intimate.It is a wonderful and beautiful story.
Alongside the literal journey Pi takes when he finds himself cast adrift in the ocean, the story is of Pi's inner journey when looking for God.
The novel won the Booker Prize and the hearts of literature lovers across the world, but can it be transferred on to the stage? The answer, delightfully, is yes.
With a twist in its tail, the novel asks difficult questions of its readers and demands they use their imaginations to the fullest – as does the stage production by Twisting Yarn, the Theatre in Education company resident at the Bradford Alhambra driven by artistic director Keith Robinson.
Robinson's imagination and passion for Life of Pi, as well as his determination that it should be told on the stage, led to his company being the only one in the world with permission to adapt
The small number of people who were privileged to experience Life of Pi during its recent run should rejoice in Robinson's determination.
The audience on the penultimate night of the performance of the run was made up primarily of adults, with the occasional youngster dotted around. All were as rapt as each other by the inventive and magical telling of the story.
It is no surprise that Martel was equally enamoured of it.
Tony Hasnath, the young actor who plays Pi, brings enormous physicality and youthful exuberance to the role, while the characters who join him on his shipwrecked vessel – variously an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra and a tiger – are played with brilliance by each of the cast members.
But it is the combination of performance and directorship that lifts this little show to the level of imaginative excellence.
When Martel visited Bradford last week to see the show, Robinson admitted that initially he and the cast had reacted quite calmly to the author's appearance.
"I was quite confident that we had done the novel justice – although I will admit that as the performance actually approached, I started to get quite nervous."
Robinson need not have worried. Martel loved what the company had done.
"When the first half was on, one of the actors told me that they could see him, but his face wasn't giving anything away," added Robinson. "At the interval he came up to me and told me he was just wowed by what we had done."
"I loved, it, absolutely loved it," says Martel.
"To be honest, I hadn't even thought about actually seeing the show until I was sitting in the audience waiting for it to start.
"By the end of the first half I thought it was brilliant, I loved the way they did the shipwreck.
"I thought they did such an extraordinary job, I couldn't believe just how much they
had managed to pack into the show."
Robinson splits his telling of the story between pre-shipwreck and post-shipwreck. The first half of the show manages to capture perfectly the unusual relationship that Pi has with the religions with which he variously claims as his own – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
The second half deals with Pi's fight for survival and his eventual rescue when he finds land. Martel's novel challenges readers to question the story that he has just told – that it could possibly be true.
"The way that Keith did that just blew me away," he said. "As I was watching I wasn't thinking so much this is a great adaptation of the novel as this is a great play."
"Don't forget that I finished the novel in 2001, we are talking nearly four-years-ago now, and I have moved on from then, so I am just delighted that this first adaptation has been a great success.
"I am interested in stories and the telling of stories and that is why I wrote the novel in the first place, so to see it work in another medium – and in particular the effect it had on children – was just amazing."
Martel says the reason he was more than happy to support Robinson in his endeavour was simply that "I had no reason to say no".
"I am very glad now that it came about and I am going to do all I can to make sure it has a chance to tour much more widely."