Woman and Wolf
Jethro Compton, the accomplished writer and director of White Fang, has created this gritty and magical adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name. It is exceptional.
The play opens with the wind howling around 2 men sitting on old wooden boxes, next to the skeleton of an animal. A woman enters singing and is joined in harmony by another man. They are all dressed in furs, turns out they are 19th Canadian fur trappers.
We are taken to the Yukon, in the Northwest Territories of Canada during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, where the novel is set. It is so authentic, like stepping into a real life western. At the beginning we meet a grizzly older man, Weedon Scott, played by Robert G Slade and a young man, Tom Vincent, played by Jonathan Mathews, in the wild during a snow blizzard, under threat of being attacked by a pack of wolves. This led me to think that the play would be like a classic western, centred on men with peripheral female characters as someone’s wife, sister or daughter. How wrong was I! It is a beautiful and moving story about Lyzbet Scott, whom Mariska Ariya animates into a strong, fiercely proud and independent young First Nations woman. Lyzbet was saved as a young child from being killed by Scott, during the slaughter of her people by trappers and hunters. Scott has raised Lyzbet as his granddaughter.
After Scott and Vincent are rescued from a potential wolf attack by the smarmy and wily Beauty Smith, convincingly acted by Paul Albertson, Scott returns home to Lyzbet and presents her with the gift of a wolf cub, whom she names White Fang .
This interpretation of Jack London’s classic novel, focusses on the relationship between Lyzbet and White Fang, how she raises him and how they become more than best friends, they become one spirit. Compton’s version of Jack London’s novel deals with much more than the relationship between woman and beast. It references how the European-Canadians committed genocide against the First Nations people. We learn that the 19th Century European-Canadians ethnically cleansed the remaining First Nations people, by forcing them onto reservations and schools to destroy their culture, including their language and spiritual beliefs. This may sound preachy but it is not. It is so cleverly written that we learn this organically, in the time and space Compton allows for the story to unfold.
All the actors are so talented that they make us believe in this beautifully written tale. They each hold their Canadian accents so well that I could believe they are North American. The script and their sensitive acting pulled me in so closely that I became emotionally attached to the key protagonists, Lyzbet and White Fang. I was heartbroken by what happens to White Fang.
I love how the Director uses multi-media to present this tale. The actors use the War Horse technique of puppetry to bring White Fang to life as a cub and an adult Wolf. It is fantastic how the play weaves haunting and original songs through the play to emphasize the mood and move the story along. The actors, but especially Bebe Saunders as Curly, are wonderful singers. Bebe has a strong clear voice full of emotion. All the harmonies are well blended, adding to the mystical atmosphere of the play.
Ariya’s Lyzbet is a brave and determined young woman who shows no mercy. Most of her love is poured into White Fang; he is an orphan too, like Lyzbet and just like her was saved by Scott. Ariya also shows how devoted Lyzbet is to Scott, even though she defies him. Ariya depicts Lyzbet’s character development very naturally. We see how Scott teaches Lyzbet to accept that everyone has light and dark within them. This allows her to forgive Scott’s role in the massacre of her family and her people, especially as he saved her. Scott tries to persuade Lyzbet that he will sell the land on which they live and she roams and hunts, to give her a good education. However Lyzbet talks him out of it. When Scott remarks that he should have left the cub, (i.e. White Fang) the power balance shifts when Liz asks which cub, me or the wolf? Lyzbet makes him realise that if he sends her away every trace of her and her origins will be washed away. This then, is the heart of the story.
The play is entwined with original songs and music by Gavin Whitworth and lyrics by Jethro Comptom which I assume are based on old folk songs from the era. Bebe’s touching rendition of several original songs including “Carry Me” and My Homeland’s Calling,” are essential to the play’s development. Another original song “Vale of Frozen Tears” which Bebe sings with the backing of 3 male cast members, is full of yearning.
There is a lot of humour in this adaptation, including a scene where Beauty Smith pulls a prank on the gullible Tom Vincent. Lyzbet’s dry and quick wit is on display throughout this well written adaptation. Curly and Lyzbet develop a close relationship, with the potential of a sexual relationship, with one scene ending with Curly singing “She is the Girl I adore.” It is yet another lovely folk/country song in the style of that era, which Bebe sings so evocatively.
There is a mysticism, or spirituality underlying the whole story. I also feel the underlying sadness about how Lyzbet is treated, what happens to White Fang and our hindsight about the atrocities and genocide of the First Nations by Europeans.
Although Lyzbet and White Fang are central to the play, the other characters are very well established too. Scott is a tough, seasoned older trapper who is well aware of his shortcomings, including excessively drinking to try and alleviate the pain he has from consumption. He is an honourable man, aware of the wrong he has done, but showed compassion by saving the child Lyzbet. He is not aware of one of his failings, which is being too trusting and not realising Beauty Smith’s evil intent. I enjoyed Paul Albertson’s nuanced performance as Beauty Smith. To White Fang and Lyzbet he is untrustworthy. But Beauty Smith saved Scott’s and Tom’s lives when they were caught in the snow storm surrounded by a pack of wolves. As Lyzbet says echoing Scott, “there is light and dark in all of us.” We also witness this in Scott’s outraged reaction to Lyzbet’s report of how another trader refuses to trade with her because she is a savage. Scott impresses upon Lyzbet that beneath her skin, she is just like everyone else and what matters is living by what is in your head and your heart.
An important line from the play is as true now as it has always been and sums up humans relationship to nature: “Everyone’s fighting the land to tame it…forgetting to appreciate.” Nevertheless, despite the fact that we know the history of genocide of the First Nations by the Europeans, the play ends on a hopeful note.
White Fang is on at Park Theatre from 13 December 2017 to 13 January 2018. https://www.parktheatre.co.uk
All photographs by Allison Davis.