Writer and director: Jethro Compton
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
In 2014, Jethro Compton brought his version of the film western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to the main stage here at the Park. Clearly a man undaunted by challenges, he now turns to an adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1906 novel White Fang, aiming to evoke its setting, the vast, icy Canadian wilderness, in the even smaller studio space.
At the core of both stories lie clashes between old ways and the new, each asking questions as to whether “civilisation” brings nobler values than what it replaces. In dramatising and condensing London’s novel, Compton has taken considerable licence to change the story and characters, relegating the eponymous figure to a supporting role. We no longer see the human world from the perspective of an animal. Here, the wolf cub White Fang is brought home by hard-drinking hunter Weedon Scott (Robert G Slade), as a gift for his adopted granddaughter Lyzbet, who is of native American origin.
We are told that Lyzbet is a young girl when the story begins, but there is little of the child in Mariska Ariya’s performance. Instead, she comes across as a very strong-willed, modern young lady. Ariya has great presence playing what is, in this version, the pivotal role, but she struggles to find a consistent balance between innocence and wisdom. Her adversary is the ironically named Beauty Smith, a ruthless, land grabbing gold prospector, who is made an ugly villain by Paul Albertson’s performance.
London recognises the natural world as cruel and unforgiving, leaving little room for Disney-style sentimentality in his depiction of animals. White Fang is represented as a life-sized puppet (James Silson is puppetry director). Snarling and bedraggled, this is a fearsome beast and there are several scenes which younger children could find upsetting.
As well as writing and directing, Compton acts as set designer and lyricist. The imposing single set, the interior of a wooden cabin, fills almost half the space, with a curtain being drawn across for exterior scenes. The lyrics are for songs in traditional style composed by Gavin Whitworth and sung a cappella by the company of six.
Compton’s dramatisation is predominantly plot-driven, with characterisation taking a back seat, but Lyzbet’s emotional torment produces some moving scenes. She treats the flagship of encroaching civilisation – an education – as a threat, she fights to preserve a dying way of life and she is struck by the urge to rediscover her ethnic identity. Compton emphasises themes in London’s work that are timeless, not least the spectre of racism.
This is an absorbing, if flawed, piece of theatre. Important elements of the original novel are lost and there are times when Compton’s concept feels over-ambitious, yet still his production manages to rise above its limitations more often than it is diminished by them.
Runs until 13 January 2018 | Image: Jethro Compton