Leaving the Call of the Wild press preview, it was difficult to retain the connection between the kind of children’s story I had expected and the raw and riveting scenes I had just watched. How had this childhood tale of survival and loyalty been so utterly transformed? Perhaps I misremember, but in the hierarchy of literary dogs isn’t Buck – the play’s hero – right between Lassie and Toto, one of those cuddly archetypes of unwavering canine loyalty which we’d all like to pet? But I do a disservice to Jack London’s 1903 novel. Buck’s tale is one of undeniable tragedy and pathos. Following his trials as he is snatched up from his mundane life of domestication in California to pull a sled in the Alaskan wilds, London’s novel has a lot to tell about the casualties of civilisation and greed.
Playing fast and loose with the novel, Barney Norris’ adaptation preserves the tone and mood of the story without resulting to a slavish, and ultimately boring, adaptation-by-numbers approach. There is much to admire in Norris’ scripting and he exposes a rich vein of dramatic tension in the novel’s narrative. Despite their shaggy coats, Norris’ writing endows the pack with more than just an animal brutality – artfully calling to prominence the parallels between man and beast, and bringing a primal intensity to both his human and canine characters.
The cast is uniformly accomplished and a striking set of performances are given from this small ensemble. Ollo Clark’s Buck is, at first, the still center around which these characters play off each other. Yet Clark’s restrained and engaging performance in these early scenes pleasingly reflects the dullness one is sometimes aware of in the eyes of the domesticated animal.
However, if you’re looking for impressive animal mimicry, Call of the Wild isn’t the show to see. Ostensibly a tale about a dog and his pack, Call of the Wild is a nuanced human drama of power and instinct – but with added bite. Amongst the cast, John-Mark Philo’s Spitz, Buck’s fearsome antagonist, adds just the right touch of charisma to make his psychotic performance believable. Alex Jeffrey brings the weary acquiescence of someone resigned to their place in the system in his portrayal of the long-suffering Dave, providing a pleasant foil to Buck’s vigour.
Whilst these actors may be playing dogs, they bring the emotional complexity of a much richer kind to their performances. Plans for set design look impressive. Whirling snow, constructive lighting and shifting sets are all part of the spectacle that Call of the Wild promises to bring to the Oxford Playhouse’s stage
Cassie Barraclough and Joe Murphy’s production is serious, taut and aggressive. And perhaps that is my only criticism of the short scenes I watched at the press preview last Sunday – Call of the Wild leaves little space for light relief and even the funnier moments are tinged with a sense of gallows humour. Yet the intensity of what I did watch has persuaded me to return to the stalls for opening night. I, at least, will be answering the call of the wild.