Bringing Life of Pi to stage in Sheffield for world premiere

With a new stage adaptation of Life of Pi in Sheffield, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to writer Lolita Chakrabarti.

Life of Pi is being shown at Sheffield Crucible. Picture: Johan Persson
Life of Pi is being shown at Sheffield Crucible. Picture: Johan Persson

On the blurb of one of my favourite books is a quote of recommendation that says: “It leaves a little hole in your life, the way a great book does.”

It doesn’t matter what the book is, the sentiment, I think, perfectly sums up the joy of a beautiful novel, it conveys the impact a

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story can have on your interior life.

For many, Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi left such a feeling of emptiness. A beautiful and beautifully ambiguous book, it is magical, spiritual, adventurous and moving and left a hole in the hearts of the millions who read it – 10 million copies were sold, but many of those copies would have been passed on to friends and loved ones; it is the sort of story you want to share.

In 2012, eleven years after the book was published, director Ang Lee, the man who brought Brokeback Mountain to life, attempted to fill the gaps in the lives of those who loved Life of Pi by bringing the story to the cinema screen.

As with all well-loved novels, there was a sense of trepidation when the movie adaptation was announced. Could this story possibly work on the big screen? Wasn’t the reader’s imagination the most key aspect that made the story work? Surely filling in that imagination with pixels and representations of reality would destroy some of the story’s magic?

If you don’t know the story, Martel’s novel tells the tale of Pi, a boy from India whose parents own a zoo. When the family leave India for Canada, they take a boat, with the animals from their zoo, and set sail.

To tell you any more would be to spoil the story. If you need convincing of its worth as a novel, Barack Obama wrote a personal note to Martel, saying it was ‘an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling’.

Many believe that the great power of Life of Pi is that it is not to be taken literally. Maybe nothing in the book is meant to be taken at face value.

A movie of the novel, great director though Ang Lee is, was surely anathema to the spirit of Martel’s story? Besides which, the novel was almost always saddled with the description ‘unfilmable’.

Well, Lee did it. His movie was surprisingly well-received, with the master of all movie critics Roger Ebert giving it four thumbs up.

Now the book is being adapted for the stage for only the second time ever (it was adapted the first time in 2004 by a tiny Theatre in Education company based in Bradford called Twisting Yarn, a remarkable story in itself that you will be able to find in the Yorkshire Post online archive).

Lolita Chakrabarti is the woman tasked with adapting it for the stage for the second time. As it opens in Sheffield this week, there is huge interest in the world premiere of this new version, opening at the Sheffield Crucible.

“I read the book when it came out and I loved it. I loved that it was this mystical, interesting, fantastical book of wonder and a fantastic story,” says Chakrabarti. “But I had no idea how you would turn it into something for the stage.”

When she was asked to adapt it for the stage, she had to come up with some idea. She began with a fairly obvious exercise.

“I just went through the book and highlighted all the bits that I thought had dramatic potential. It’s a story within a story, with Pi telling the story to the Japanese sailors. I’ve changed that, with the blessing of Yann, and now have him telling the story to a Canadian diplomat.

“It has been an amazing process. I was approached two or three years ago and there has been a lot of development in between with working out how to tell the story theatrically.”

Okay, slight spoiler alert, as I think you need to know some of what happens in order to understand why there is such a challenge.

On the boat journey from India to Canada, Pi finds himself shipwrecked with several zoo animals for company, the main one of which is a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

“The first draft was absolutely packed full of story, it became quite ridiculous actually, with the actors racing through trying to tell all of the story I had tried to include,” says Chakrabarti.

“Through the development it’s all been stripped back and we have these amazing puppets on stage. The puppets are unlike anything you will have seen before.”

Chakrabati knows of the previous Bradford production and, obviously, of the Ang Lee version, but seems unfazed at taking on another new telling of such a beloved story.

“The beauty of Pi is that he has a great deal of innocence and wisdom at the same time. He’s a really attractive character, what he goes through questions the nature of faith and belief and his story is about family and loss and the struggles we all go through,” she says.

“For me it’s a story about life and how we deal with the things we all go through in life.”

It is also, in a very real sense, about a boy shipwrecked with

a lot of animals from a zoo – perhaps. The great beauty of the book is that there are several different versions of what actually happens in the story. Chakrabarti has the answer from the author’s mouth.

“I asked Yann what the truth of the story is. He told me that it is absolutely…”

I’m sorry, I can’t.

Go see the production and as for the story, in the words of Luigi Pirandello, it is what you believe it to be.

Writer hails from Hull

Lolita Chakrabati, a Hull native, is also well known as an actor, having appeared in the second series of the internationally acclaimed

drama Riviera, as well as Silent Witness, Extras and Jekyll and Hyde.

On stage she has appeared as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude opposite Tom Hiddleston and in Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic.

Her first play as a writer was Red Velvet, the story of African American actor Ira Aldridge, which opened in London in 2012 before transferring to New York.

Life of Pi, Sheffield Crucible, to July 20. Tickets 0114 2496000. sheffieldtheatres.co.uk