Interview with Life of Pie director Max Webster: “It asks the question of how we tell the story of our lives”

Ahead of its world premiere with Sheffield Theatres, Exposed caught up with director Max Webster to find out why Life of Pi is such a desirable story to bring to the stage, and in what ways it promises to be different from the multi award-winning film you may have seen before…

Whose idea was it to put on the production?
I think we all had the idea separately. I’ve been trying to do this for many years. I know Lolita [Chakrabarti, adapter of the text] loves the book, and I know the producers here have been thinking about it. I had been asking various people for the rights, and trying to get it going for a bit. I think some people suggested me as a director because they knew I was interested in the story.

How close is the adaptation to the book?
I think it’s very close! Lolita has worked very closely with Yann’s book. She has taken all the essential elements of the story and turned it into a stage version.

What made you want to tell this story specifically?
I think the book is so amazing! In one sense it is very real: it is about what could happen when you are stranded at sea, and it takes you to that place that asks what would happen if everything went wrong with your life. When you are going on a plane or a ship, you think you are going to a new country to start a new life and actually the whole world goes wrong! You lose your family; you get stranded in the worst possible conditions in the middle of the ocean with a wild animal. It does that with such incredible and logical detail. It is about survival, what you do at the most extreme points in your life, but also Yann [Martel, writer] actually tells two stories: one story that has animals, more poetic, if you like, and then another story that is much more brutal, that has humans. He asks you which one you should choose. It asks the question of how we tell the story of our lives… Do we tell the more magical version, or the more real and brutal version? And what does that mean? I think that is a very beautiful way of thinking about… well, life really.

Director Max Webster in rehearsals for Life of Pi. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

You touched on the animalistic side, so how are you approaching the ‘character’ of the tiger on stage?
The animals are puppets. They are brought to life by three people, which is based on the Japanese tradition of Bunraku Theatre where three people operate a marionette. That goes back hundreds of years. It is hard work because there is a lot of detail and life. Making puppets is really beautiful but complicated, but also the staging has to be very carefully choreographed. They are involved right from the beginning. It all takes five times longer! I’m working with a movement and puppetry director, Finn Caldwell. We are working very much together.

Have you directed in Sheffield before?
No, never. I was based in Manchester a while ago at the Royal Exchange and so I came over quite a lot when Dan Evans had taken over [at Sheffield Theatres]. I really enjoyed some of the things I saw here.

What do you think of the Crucible as a space?
Really beautiful! I’ve seen loads of stuff there, some really beautiful things. I think it’s really exciting, it’s got that feeling of intimacy as you are never miles away from the stage, but some big stories can be told there!

“The animals are puppets. They are brought to life by three people, which is based on the Japanese tradition of Bunraku Theatre where three people operate a marionette.”

Does the layout of it your staging?
Yes, especially for puppets. If you are staging in a proscenium arch you can just have the puppeteers behind the back. But this has to be in three dimensions all the time. You have to keep things moving to change perspective.

What would you say to anyone who may not regularly visit the theatre to get them to come to Life of Pi?
It is a heart-stopping story about life at its most extreme: survival. It is also an extraordinary theatrical production with puppets and video and a load of imagination. It is something that is quite meaningful and powerful and strong, but also something that will be a really exciting and beautiful night out.

Is it similar to the critically-acclaimed film?
It is quite different to the film. There are things you can do in film that you can’t do on the stage. I think it goes back to Yann’s book. Theatre can find more of his book and put that on stage in a way you can’t quite with a film. We have a really good team. I think the theatre and the play’s title, the fact it’s well known, has attracted a great team.

Life of Pi is at Sheffield Theatres from Fri 28 Jun – Sat 20 Jul.

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