A story of hope: Life of Pi
In honour of National Novel Writing Month, we are discussing one of the greats, Life of Pi. The award-winning play joins us at The Grand from Tue 9 – Sat 13 January 2024. We talked with the actors of Pi, Divesh and Adwitha, to learn more about them, Pi, and what it’s like to work with puppets.
Divesh Subaskaran will play Pi in the current UK and Ireland tour. The role will be alternated by Adwitha Arumugam at certain performances.
Written by Mark Fisher
What are your backgrounds?
Divesh: I was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore. I came to London after I did two years of military service in Singapore. I’ve only lived in the UK for the last four years and I’ve never been to most of the places we’re touring to. It’s so funny because unlike the character of Pi, I’m not a very adventurous person. It took this job for me to see the country and I’m loving it.
Adwitha: I come from Chennai, which is a couple of hours away from Pondicherry where the play is set, and I spent a lot of my childhood there. Playing Pi, I’ve been able to draw on real experiences, real people I know and real images I have in my head. I came to London about four years ago for drama school. I’m really looking forward to going on tour because it’s a great opportunity to see the UK. In Sheffield, for example, we went for breakfast to this quaint café that we wouldn’t ever have gone to if we weren’t in the show – and I had the best iced chai of my life.
What do you bring to the part?
Divesh: As well as reading the novel and the script, I travelled to Pondicherry a month before rehearsals. I spent time living in the French quarter. Obviously, the fact that Pi is out at sea for a year is hard for anyone to match, but I’ve experimented with some things, for example, trying to fast and seeing what hunger feels like. I fasted for a week. The very first bite I had to eat – it was a croissant – was like ecstasy. Every bite after that was kind of average!
Being in India was great – the environment, the people – it’s completely different from where I live in London. There’s a certain freedom of expression. I felt what it was like to be in hot weather, to drink chai every day. Pi is very philosophical and spiritual, so I went to temple, mosque and church. Whenever I would walk past a temple, I would just go and sit in it for a bit and try to surround myself with what the character did. It gives you the confidence that you’ve been to that place and you’ve seen what it’s like. Your sweat is different. The way you experience heat is different.
Adwitha: Obviously, I’m playing Pi as female and that in itself changes a lot of things because it’s 1970s in India and gender roles were quite defined at that point. Relationships change, the way Pi sees the world changes and the perspective on things changes. I’m playing Pi very differently from Divesh, but we have a very collaborative relationship: when I’m doing my run-through he watches it and tells me things he thought worked and things he might apply to his own performance. And similarly when he’s performing, I’m sat there in the front, giving him notes when he needs it because I’ve been through the process. Nobody else knows what it’s like to be in these shows so we’ve got each other’s backs.
Why do you think The Life of Pi has proved so successful?
Divesh: There are a plethora of reasons. It’s a story about survival, human nature and the animalistic side to human beings. To me, reading Yann Martel’s book as someone who grew up in a Hindu household, I’m thinking this guy knows his stuff when it comes to all the religious texts. But ultimately it’s a story about survival and how we have this dual nature that comes into conflict sometimes. We are not just one thing; we are multifaceted human beings. And a story about being on a boat with a tiger for a year – what’s not exciting about that?
Adwitha: It’s such a human story. It’s the story of life. It’s what every one of us goes through. Every one of us has a Richard Parker, every one of us has a lifeboat, every one of us has been stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and somehow found a way to a magic island and finally ashore. All of us have been through it and all of us relate to it because it’s a story of family, hope, survival love, belief, faith. These are things that are fundamental to human society.
Is it important for you to know what’s real in the story and what’s not?
Divesh: For me as an actor, it is important. Pi truly believes he was on the boat with the animals. There’s no other version for him. There are discussions in the play about what actually happened on the boat, but they end up believing his story and writing it in the report. I feel that Pi truly believes this story; it’s not fiction to him. He needs Tomohiro Okamoto and Lulu Chen from the embassy to validate his existence. That’s why those scenes are so powerful – Okamoto is asking about facts and wants to know what happened to the ship and how he survived and he’s telling a story about orangutans floating on a rock with bananas and saving a tiger, but he really believes it.
What is it like working with puppets?
Divesh: The puppeteers do such an amazing job that it is sometimes pretty scary being up there. They do these intense animal studies and a lot of the sounds you hear on stage are coming from the puppeteers. At the beginning it was difficult to know what that relationship was going to be like, but the more you go through the movement patterns, the more you understand the relationship and if I take a step closer, this killing machine will eat me alive. It’s about maintaining that level of tension between myself and the animal. The tiger has been built to look like a real thing and it has a mind of its own. The puppeteers dictate where it goes and it’s not the same every time. We’re playing this game – one night the tiger might actually kill me!
Adwitha: It’s so much fun. It’s almost better than working with human beings. With the tiger puppet it’s so much more alive because there are three human beings bringing it to life. The power and presence of the puppet is so much bigger. Irrespective of how many times you’ve seen the puppet, when the tiger is coming at you trying to kill you, you run!
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