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Pi and Life-sized puppet tiger on boat
Pi and Life-sized puppet tiger on boat

In conversation with Pi

In conversation with actors Divesh Subakaran and Adwitha Arumugan

Based on the global phenomenon and winner of the Man Booker Prize, selling over fifteen million copies worldwide, Life Of Pi is the hugely popular story of an epic journey of endurance and hope. After an epic storm in the Pacific Ocean, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with four other survivors – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger.

Divesh Subaskaran will play Pi in the 2024 UK and Ireland tour of Life of Pi, coming to Mayflower Theatre 14 – 18 May 2024. The role will be alternated by Adwitha Arumugam at certain performances.

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 in 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.

Pi in white standing in front of life-size puppet giraffe in bamboo enclosure in urban area

With its five Olivier Awards in the West End and three Tony Awards in New York, the show is a proven success. Have you been able to discover the part of Pi for yourself?

Divesh: I definitely feel I’ve found my own way into it. The creative team of Max Webster, Finn Caldwell, Scarlet Wilderink and Lolita Chakrabarti have all worked on the show for so long and have an understanding of what the story is all about and the best way to tell it. But I’ve not felt any pressure to be like another performer. They’ve been extremely gracious to me in letting me figure out this character for myself. You would think they had a formula, but I don’t feel I’m filling the shoes of somebody else. It is super exciting to come at it from my point of view.

Adwitha: There is no space in the play to robotically go through the moves. Yann’s words and Lolita’s words are so beautiful and it is such an emotionally moving play that it cannot be copied and pasted.

Pi yelling on a boat in the rain, one foot on the bed in the boat.

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!

Pi sits on a rug surrounded by a crowd in India

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.

Against a clear starry night sky, Pi kneels on the end of a bed, a life-sized puppet tiger sits on the floor beside him

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.

A life-sized puppet tiger stalks Pi, holding a box, from one end of a row boat.

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.

Life-sized tiger puppet prowls out of a doorway behind bars

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!

By Mark Fisher

Image credit Johan Persson