Saturday 16th December 2017, matinée
Fans of Jack London’s book ‘White Fang’ might be wondering how on earth the Producers of this play have managed to stage it at the Park Theatre, being a the story of a Wolf told in the first person. They needn’t worry, though. Jethro Compton’s version is ‘inspired by’ the story, and takes the action in a very different, more human direction, although the wolf is still an important character.
If anything captures the spirit of the story it might be this quotation from Mark Twain – “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog”. Or in this case, Wolf. He certainly seems to be one of the most attractive characters in the story. Whilst the original book explores issues of identity and belonging through the character of a wolf-dog hybrid who never quite fits in to the pack, Compton tells a parallel story of Elizabeth Scott, a First Nations girl in the Yukon who is rescued as a baby by a White Hunter when her family is killed. Brought up away from the traditions of her people, the gift of an orphaned wolf cub becomes the catalyst for her to discover the ways of her ancestors, and through her affinity with the animal, she learns about a different way of life and starts to question the plans that her adoptive ‘grandfather’ has made for her.
The central metaphor works well and the spirit of the wolf infuses the action. We begin with hunters Weedon Scott and Tom Vincent huddled in a tent out in the wilderness, besieged by a wolf pack and running out of ammunition, saved by another hunter, Beauty Smith. The sense of isolation and threat remains as the action widens out into a log cabin. Gradually it emerges that Weedon’s sense of obligation to Beauty may be a fatal weakness. Trying to do the best for his ‘grand-daughter’ Elizabeth, he wants to make her happy, but can’t protect her from the prejudice of his world. He wants to sell some land to make money and give her a better life, but she sees this as a betrayal, and as more and more people want to grab a piece of the mineral wealth in the hostile territory, her connection with the land feels more and more like an unaffordable luxury.
As Elizabeth, Mariska Ariya is highly engaging. She captures a childlike stubbornness in the character, which gradually transforms into a tenacity that is a central part of who she is, as she starts to discover her true history and identity, and realises that she will have to make a different and stark choice. Ariya draws us in to Elizabeth’s passions and obsessions, but is also pleasingly abrasive at times, ensuring that we earn our right to know her. As ‘Grandad’ Weedon, Robert G Slade perfectly embodies the grizzled frontiersman, while Paul Albertson as Beauty Smith keeps us guessing about his motives right until the end.
The production is not just about the acting though – the whole company create an immersive experience, whether through Jonny Sims’ original music, with songs by Gavin Whitworth and Jethro Compton, beautifully delivered by the company, and with lovely vocals from Bebe Sanders, who also plays Elizabeth’s friend Curly, in particular. Puppetry Director James Silson has also trained up the cast to bring White Fang himself to life, making him a vibrant presence in the story.
The whole company have pulled off quite a feat, transforming the intimate studio theatre at the Park into a lonely homestead on the edge of a vast snowy wilderness. A perfect Christmas treat.