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Life of Pi puppeteers talk about their tiger feat

Fans of Yann Martel’s inspirational novel Life of Pi will know the story centres around two very different characters.

One is the titular ‘Pi’ who recounts his amazing tale of being adrift on the wide ocean after a disaster at sea – and the other is the Royal Bengal Tiger, named Richard Parker, who becomes his main companion.

The 2001 book was turned into a 2012 film, and now the magical, Olivier and Tony Award-winning stage version of the story – adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti – is heading for the Liverpool Empire as part of an inaugural UK tour.

The story’s big cat protagonist is brought powerfully to life with the help of a team of hugely-skilled puppeteers, including Akash Heer – who is responsible for the tiger’s head, and Romina Hytten, the sleek animal’s heart and hind.

“They’ve given us the structure,” explains Anglesey-born actor Heer of bringing Richard Parker to life, “but they’re continuously open for us to explore and discover. Once you’ve got the format down, you’re open to explore.

“I think about what my tiger would be like if they were human. I even have a Spotify playlist for my tiger. Music is such a huge part of me, and I like to create music that fits my character.”

Hytten adds: “It’s incredibly technical when you first pick up a puppet. You have to learn to move in specific ways. This show is very physical, and you have to train your body to cope. You have to learn to breathe and to be the tiger.

“After you’ve learned all of that and your brain is exploding, you get to a point when you know your teammates so well you can read their minds. You can improvise on stage and that’s so beautiful. That’s when the tiger comes to life.”

After a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, there are five survivors stranded on a single lifeboat – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a 16-year-old boy and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. Time is against them, nature is harsh, who will survive?

Above: Akash Heer and Romina Hytten bring Richard Parker the Bengal tiger to life on stage. Top: Life of Pi. Photos by Johan Persson.

Actor-puppeteers also inject life into the tale’s other animal characters. All have an important role to play, but it’s the interaction between boy and tiger which form the beating heart of the tale of endurance and hope.

“Each puppeteer brings a different energy, and you have to tune in with them,” says Hytten, who first learned puppetry in the Chester Festival Youth Theatre as a teenager.

“I did the show for 15 months in London and we were still finding new things right in the last week. We keep learning from each other, and the show gets richer.

“We have a rotating system because it would be too physically demanding to play the tiger every night, so we get to watch each other. When you’re in the puppet you can’t tell if what you’re doing looks good, so you have to rely on your teammates to tell you. It’s very collaborative and a lovely way to work.”

And Heer reveals: “It’s three different bodies but you sync and connect with breath. When the breath beats through to the heart and the hind only then do I feel truly connected.

“You feel you have connected to two other souls, and you are in charge of this beast. You walk forward, you pause, you react, you attack and when everything syncs up it’s such an exhilarating feeling.”

The stage play was premiered to critical acclaim at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield in 2019 and went on to transfer to the West End in 2021 where it won five Oliviers - including a 'best supporting actor' award for Hytten and her fellow puppeteers - and five UK Theatre Awards, including ‘best play’ in both. A Broadway production scooped three Tonys and four Drama Desk accolades.

Life of Pi is at the Liverpool Empire from April 30 to May 4. Tickets HERE


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