In Jack London’s 1906 novel White Fang, the eponymous wolf puppy loses his family, is brutalised by the society he joins but eventually finds happiness. Jethro Compton’s tempestuous production follows roughly the same arc – except the protagonist is a young First Nations woman, Lyzbet Scott (Mariska Ariya), brought up among white settlers.
Her adoptive grandfather Weedon Scott (Robert G Slade) saves her a wolf puppy from a hunt (a brilliantly worked puppet). She names it White Fang in her native tongue, and they hunt together using traditional methods, uneasily straddling two cultures, until Beauty Smith (Paul Albertson) tries to buy her grandfather’s land – her birthright.
Some character names will be familiar to the novel’s readers, but Compton’s White Fang is entirely original. Characters are given to lyrical out-of-character narration; dialogue is delivered with passionate thunder. The villains have irredeemably black hearts and cruel faces; Lyzbet’s friends are utterly good. The themes of colonialism, racism and belonging are punched into the audience with pugilistic insistence. And yet – it works.
Compton’s detailed set design, based on the interior of a Northwestern Canadian house circa 1900, is lush and immersive. Adrin Puente’s costume design is authentic and intelligent – Ariya’s Lyzbet adds layers to her clothing as she grows as a person. Ariya herself powerfully carries a punishingly weighty storyline. Jonny Sims’ soundtrack is appropriately cinematic. And the White Fang puppet, though more illustrative than anything else, is gorgeous and cleverly manipulated. White Fang is nothing like the novel, and frankly better for it.