The first rule of theatre is never to work with children or animals, and Call of the Wild proves that there’s no need to if you can play them, quite possibly better than they could play themselves. It looks like the cast has spent a lot of time lying on the casting couch, getting in touch with their canine side. All this work has certainly paid off; at every moment, the dogs bristle with a tense, fluttering energy which makes them captivating to watch. And despite their identical, minimalist costumes, each actor succeeds in developing a distinct identity, be it tail-chasing nervousness, nuzzling sycophancy, or strutting monomania, before they’ve spoken a word. These individual characters unite effectively into a powerful ensemble. Every corner of the Playhouse stage ripples with ferocious life with the arrival of the dog pack, whose suppressed, jittery movements leave us glancing nervously from side to side.
The pack treads an effective line between humanness and dogginess. They speak with a poignant eloquence that goes ignored by their human masters, and stand up to look each other in the eye whenever those masters leave them alone. But at key dramatic moments, the emotion-fuelled script escalates into animalistic barks and howls that leave nothing else to be said, and conflict is resolved by brutal, throat-tearing violence from dogs and humans alike. Such is the clarity of unspoken expression that we’re left with the feeling that the script would have been no less effective if it had forgone words completely.
The play doesn’t quite escape one problem of the original; its patchwork plot, where Buck is the only constant stage presence. The other actors, helped by some impressively swift costume changes and prop placement, form an assembly line of characters and scenarios for Buck to get carried down. This means that we don’t get to see as much of the dog pack as we’d like, which is a pity, given the time and effort that the cast has evidently gone to deliver a unique and gripping portrayal of life on all fours.
There is also a tendency for the action to lapse into playing out various human affairs that we (by now) consider to be laughably trivial. As the human characters are, for the most part, ships passing in the night of Buck’s story, it’s hard to find the time to care about any of them (and harder to know whether we’re supposed to). Having said that, the human scenes are well-crafted sketches featuring several hilarious performances; snapshots of human life which bring out its tyranny, greed, and violence in a more light-hearted way. They are engaging enough to distract you from their irrelevance and justify their inclusion.
In fact, I’d be lying if I said my critical eye was able to pick out any weaknesses during the show itself. The unbridled strength and power of the performances are more than enough to dig its fangs into you and refuse to let go.