Created by Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, Playhouse Theatre’s The Jungle tells the stories of inhabitants of the makeshift camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle.
An unofficial refugee camp with more than 8,000 individuals from more than 17 countries — including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, Chad, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kurdistan, and Iran — inhabitants of the Jungle were awaiting a chance to cross the Channel to the UK.
There have been two phases in the development of the Jungle. The first Jungle, built in 2002, was bulldozed in 2009. The second Jungle was built in 2014, at the beginning of the current “refugee crisis,” by large numbers of people who made their way to Calais. It was bulldozed in 2016.
With the help of NGO (non-governmental organization) volunteers, the residents built makeshift houses, cafés, mosques, churches, a market, a theatre, schools, and even a hair salon. These businesses and educational and cultural centers reflected the migrants’ resilience and determination to normalize their lives as much as possible.
The play portrays the people in this makeshift camp from March 2015 through its demolition in October 2016. The narrative and the characters are based on the seven months that Robertson and Murphy stayed in the Jungle where they built a geodesic dome tent, which they named Good Chance Theatre. The theatre served as a communal site for the migrants to show and share a variety of performance pieces including dance, martial arts, music, and, of course, theatre. The current cast members are both professional actors as well as migrants, some of whom Robertson and Murphy met in Calais.
The Jungle begins in 2016 at an emergency meeting held in a makeshift Afghan restaurant just after another eviction notice is posted. Derek, a volunteer, explains what to expect and what they should prepare, while another volunteer, Paula, collects information from each refugee to present to the French authorities.
The stories of the residents of the Jungle start when the audience is taken back to March 2015 where Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), a former student of English literature from Aleppo, serves the role of a narrator/guide. Among a number of inhabitants are: Salar (Ben Turner) from Afghanistan who runs a restaurant and also serves as a leader of the community; Okot (John Pfumojena), an 18-year-old boy from Darfur; Norullah (Mohammad Amiri) a hot-headed youth from Afghanistan; and Helene (Nahel Tzegai) from Eritrea. A number of children in the real Jungle are represented by six-year-old Amal, a girl from Syria (played by Erin Rushidi in the performance I attended).
The different personalities and goals of the volunteers are intriguing. Derek (Dominic Rowan), a socialist-type, “stands in solidarity” with the refugees. Math-genius Sam (Alex Lawther) helps to build hundreds of makeshift “houses.” Beth (Rachel Redford), a compassionate and sensitive volunteer, begins to question the relevancy of what she does as she comes to understand the lives and experiences of the refugees. Paula (Jo McInnes) advocates for women and children, the most vulnerable population within and outside the camp.
An English man named Boxer (after the horse in George Orwell’s The Animal Farm), played by Trevor Fox in the performance I attended, is a Shakespearean Fool. Playing the banjo and singing songs, Boxer makes fun of Theresa May’s unsympathetic attitude toward and her ineffectual measures on migrants. (Musical direction and composition by John Pfumojena.)
The audience on the first level of the theatre (the transformed stalls section) becomes a part of the Jungle community. All of the seats are replaced by crisscrossed platforms for the performers, rows of tables and chairs for the audience, and different ethnic and national sections identified by flags and other markers.
The audience on the second level looks down on the spectators at the tables in the Afghan restaurant. They also watch TV monitors for details of the action and close-ups of the performers, sometimes from angles that can’t be seen from below. Toward the end of the show, news clips about the demolition of the Jungle are projected. The TV monitors remind the audience members of their position as outsiders and passive observers of violence, devastation, and instability caused by global conflicts.
The Jungle gives the audience an opportunity to get to know the names and cultures of the refugees while illuminating their resilience and creativity. They make a devastated place habitable and vibrant. Music, dance, and other performances including martial arts all manifest the cultures, traditions, and pride that people have brought with them. The resilience of these people who build not only shelters but a community juxtaposes with the social and political instability of their “homes” and the inability of the West to provide appropriate alternatives.
As a response to its successful original run at the Young Vic (December 2017 to January 2018), The Jungle opened at Playhouse Theatre in London in June 2018 for a 20-week engagement. It will run at the Playhouse Theatre through November 5, 2018.
The Jungle will also be staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, from December 4, 2018.