“The Jungle” does everything theater does best, and more. It takes us to places we would never otherwise go, brings us face to face with people we wouldn’t ordinarily encounter, and lets us into lives we’ll never live for ourselves. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s play, the summation of their six months on-site at the Calais refugee camp, takes audiences into the heart of that makeshift, unofficial settlement and testifies to the experiences of those living in its limbo, hoping to make their way into the U.K.
Loosely set in the Afghan quarter’s provisional restaurant, generously run by the testy Salar (Ben Turner) and brilliantly recreated at the Young Vic in Miriam Buether’s wraparound design, co-director Stephen Daldry’s semi-immersive staging brings to teeming life a place most of us know only from afar, with all its complexities and contradictions intact. Staged on a criss-cross of wooden tables around which the audience sits, it shows us the tense town hall meetings that settle disputes between nationalities and the volunteer efforts to provide aid and instill order. It shows refugees attempting to stowaway in trucks crossing the channel, the people-smugglers profiting from their plight, and the women and unaccompanied children left to fend for themselves. It is a staggering, shaming piece of theater: a damning indictment of a society that looked the other way and a celebration of the spirit that survived in its midst.
At its simplest, “The Jungle” recounts the camp’s own history; the few fragile years between its ramshackle inception to its eventual enforced eviction as French authorities moved in and razed the settlement to mud. Murphy and Robertson, the artistic directors of Good Chance Theatre, carefully chart the significant turning points in between: from the improvisation of provisional infrastructure — cafes, churches, even a nightclub — to the arrival of British volunteers after Alan Kurdi’s bloated six-year-old body hit the news. If the camp starts to cohere into something like a self-governing, standalone society (albeit a precarious, jostling one), it does so under threat from the French courts. Public opinion hardens in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, and bulldozers and riot police start to encroach.
Thorough as this political overview is, the play’s overarching plot is really a vehicle to smuggle in the lived experiences of those on-site. Murphy and Robertson lived alongside and among them, and their writing carries the weight and detail, not to mention the care and respect, of first-hand experience. It lives in those details: onions handed to stowaways to keep border guard-dogs away, guns that wind up in teenage kids’ hands, scars picked up on long, treacherous journeys.
Murphy and Robertson orchestrate them into a series of full-bodied personal stories, and “The Jungle” shares its sympathy equally between refugees and well-meaning volunteers, all trying, but all tested by the squalid, crowded conditions. At its center, two teenage boys — hot-headed Afghan Norullah (Mohammad Amiri) and cold-tempered Sudanese Okot (John Pfumojena) — forge a friendship out of a frosty first encounter.
Their British contemporaries are a few years older, but seem far younger even as they come of age in the Jungle. Wet-behind-the-ears old Etonian Sam (Alex Lawther) moves from treating the place like a geography field trip to cutting covert allegiances with French civil servants, while Rachel Redford’s grounded, Welsh, gap-year student stands up to brutish border guards. An alcoholic vagabond, Georde Boxer (Trevor Fox), is at once a pain in the arse and a shot in the arm, but then everyone here has their contradictions: Jo McInnes’ caring, no-nonsense matriarch; Ammar Haj Ahmad’s deferential Syrian who, eventually, takes the selfish way out; Salar, whose ingrained racism jostles with his outright generosity. Their shortcomings aren’t entirely excused, but they are always understandable.
Daldry and co-director Justin Martin capture the uncontained energy of a camp that can move from frantic chaos when “dugar” (traffic jams) build up or riot police move in, to moments of reflective calm or exuberant, creative expression, and Buether’s design is as temporary as the site itself in the way it occupies and remakes the Young Vic’s main space.
Beneath the tangle of (somewhat smooth) stories, there’s a layer of careful consideration. “The Jungle” brilliantly, delicately, pins down the many contradictions of the migrant camp itself. It is, as one arrival declares, “the worst place in Europe” and yet, in its own way, it has a utopian quality that makes Michael Gould’s old socialist Brit go all misty-eyed. For all the place’s inhospitability, its people forge a caring, close-knit community. For all its multiculturalism, there are still combustible tensions between the different groups jostling together. The conditions bring out the very best in people and the very worst. Well-meaning volunteers, arriving equipped like polar explorers, can, at times, hinder as much as help. Their orchestration looks a lot like imposition, even at times the imperialism that has wracked the refugee’s own countries in the past.
More than that, though, Murphy and Robertson nail the Jungle’s primary paradox: the permanent nature of a temporary space. To develop the site is, in its own way, to admit a kind of defeat. Making the place habitable means making it a home – yet those living here all intend to leave. To settle is to settle. To take pride in the place is to give up hope of leaving it and, as the bulldozers bear down, resisting eviction looks a lot like a demand to stay.