INTERVIEW: Lolita Chakrabarti

Posted by: Ashley Birch
INTERVIEW: Lolita Chakrabarti supporting image

Lolita Chakrabarti. Photo by The Masons

We spoke to the British writer and actor ahead of the world premiere of her Life of Pi adaptation at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre

Later this month, Sheffield’s Crucible theatre will be overrun by a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a sixteen year-old boy and a hungry Bengal tiger! No, it’s not the arrival of a morally dubious circus act, rather the premiere of a dazzling new theatrical adaptation of the Man Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi.


Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, who you may recognise from acting roles in basically every good British drama you can think of, this new adaptation wrestles with both the giant themes of the book, as well as how to get a giant tiger on stage in the Crucible theatre.


The answers to that last one is simple (he says!), you just get three specialist actors to work in unison to control a giant puppet tiger in a balletic performance that we were lucky enough to witness a prototype of in in rehearsals last week and trust us, it looks amazing in action.


Richard Parker the Tiger and Owain Gwynn in rehearsals for Life of Pi. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Everything about this production promises to be big and bold, from the themes of the book and play, to the process of adapting it, to the casting decisions and the puppets themselves (that’s not to mention the huge rotating stage), yes, it’s all huge. So much so, that it’s too big for the Sheffield Theatre’s regular rehearsals space, and we find ourselves sitting with Lolita Chakrabarti upstairs, inside what is now the Kollider building, in Castlegate.


Lolita has adapted the ambitious theatrical version from the bestselling book and became involved as a fan of the source material. She said: “I read the book when it came out in 2002 just as a punter, and I absolutely loved it. Flash-forward almost 15 years and the producer Simon Friend had the rights to the book and he approached me and asked if I was interested, and because I loved the book so much, I was like ‘yeah, I’m really interested.’


“I had no idea how I’d do it, but I loved the story and I think in order to keep your commitment to adapting or writing anything you need it to keep your interest. It’s very easy just to go, ‘I’ve had enough, and I’m walking away’. The fact that I loved the book was a great hook for me.”


Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) in rehearsals for Life of Pi. Photo by Manuel Harlan


The story follows a young boy called Pi, who lived in India with his family at their zoo in Pondicherry. Because of political unrest in India in the 1970s, mum and dad decide to immigrate to Canada, taking their animals with them. Their ship sinks and the boy is the only survivor on a lifeboat along with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra and a Bengal tiger.


“It’s about him telling the story of what happened to him and his family,” says Lolita: “Within the book and the play, he [Pi] is a curious, smart kid. He’s curious about nature, but he is also curious about religion and faith and what that means. His faith is hugely tested because he has to face some really awful choices. It’s about whether he keeps his faith, and how he defines his faith.


“It’s been difficult walking a line of talking about faith and God in just three forms. We only deal with Muslim, Christian and Hindu because there is a limit for how long people are going to sit in the theatre and that is what is dealt with in the book. Making that interesting and entertaining is also a fine line to tread.  Yann Martel, who wrote the book, he treads it very well, so there’s some good guidance there.

Owain Gwynn, Kate Colebrook and Fred Davis (Richard Parker puppeteers) in rehearsals. Photo by Manuel Harlan


“The book is really different and I totally understand why the film couldn’t cover it all because the book is huge. It deals with pretty big subjects and in a book it’s a very personal relationship where you’re reading it and you can explore it in your own mind, whereas in a film you want to see it.


“In the theatre the idea ideas from the book are fascinating, but it’s all about relationships. That’s been one of the major things I’ve had to work at. In that, trying to find a story that starts in one place, rises to absolute crisis and ends in a different place, because the whole thing is a crisis!”


In rehearsals, one of the things that is most striking (apart from the tiger) is the diversity of race and gender within the cast. This is something that Lolita explains was incredibly important to her. “The story calls for it, but they are the characters I’ve chosen to write about. So totally it was something we thought about, it thrills me. I’ve also changed some of the male characters in the book into women and suddenly you realise how the world is seen from a male point of view a lot.


Hiran Abeysekera (Pi) in rehearsals for Life of Pi. Photo by Manuel Harlan


“It’s really important to me. I guess, by definition, I am innately diverse but I don’t see myself as that. What you see on stage is my world, and I love presenting my world as I see it.”


As well as an incredible cast, there is also the novelty of having live puppets on stage. The physicality of the performances is at times breathtaking: “The three specialist puppeteer actors that we’ve got embodying the tiger are so amazing. It’s all about their focus, their intent. They will the character, three of them in one character. It’s very exciting to see it come together.


“Puppets require a certain amount of time. If you linger to long with them, it gets boring, so you need the story to keep going enough and the puppets to do their magical thing and then you let them go when they’re done. It’s a dance between all of us. Because I’m an actor, I know that if the words aren’t’ there you get stuck. So I’m really conscious that everyone needs the right words at the right time, so I’ve been re-writing like mad.”


Puppet Designer Finn Caldwell and Richard Parker the Tiger. Photo by Manuel Harlan


So, how has she found swapping acting for writing this adaptation? “It’s totally of itself,” she says: “to be trusted with a book of this kind of stature, and the fondness people have for it is really sobering. Everyone I speak to has either read it, seen the film, got on their shelf and saying I must read it or heard of it, so everybody has a relationship to it.


“I’m sort of equal measures frightened and absolutely over the moon. I think, ‘wow, we got here’ and it’s really shaping up. The story is becoming even more immediate and better as we work on it, and some of it I look at think, ‘God, I’ve written that!’ It’s that nervous anticipation and I’m thrilled that it’s in Sheffield.”


Life of Pi runs from Friday 28 June – Saturday 20 July at The Crucible Theatre. Tickets are priced from £15 and are available through the Sheffield Theatres website.

All comments

Already Registered?

Please to your account to leave a comment.

Not got an account?

Please for a free account.