Boy, if you didn’t hate Theresa May already, this incredible play will definitely do the job. But while it will make you shake with rage against everyone in positions of power – the ones with the ability to make decisions that will help instead of hurt, but don’t – it won’t only leave you feeling sad and impotent. It will make you want to step up and help as well. And though it was kind of suuuper bougie that we were these middle class white people seeing a play about the Jungle while our do-gooder friends have actually volunteered there, it really is an important play to see, because theatre can and often should create real change in the world, and this is the kind of play that embodies that goal.
The setting of the Calais migrant camp was in the news a lot a few years ago, for dern good reason, and even though the human rights violations are still occurring over the water (over to France, I mean, not the USA, although we all know the many violations of all sorts happening over that water but that’s not what I’m talking about for this one moment in time), the news has dropped the ball on covering it. Refugees and migrants trying to flee from many different countries for many different reasons have been coming into Europe for a long time, but in 2015 the number rose substantially. The huge numbers of migrants set up an encampment near Calais, France, from January 2015 to October 2016. With little assistance from activists and organizations, they built temporary housing, places of worships, restaurants. They dealt with sanitation problems (like lack of sanitation), food shortages, unaccompanied children, and the kinds of abuses that occur in any large group. People were hoping to get to the UK, and would risk their lives over and over and over by hiding in trucks, jumping ferries, or stowing away on trains heading to their believed salvation. They would really risk everything to succeed on this journey, evidenced in large part by the record number of people who died at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe, terribly crowded small boats. Everyone remembers the picture of the poor little boy who drowned, a fact that this play reminds you of.
Despite the growing number of migrants camped out here, the French authorities began carrying out evictions. They would clear the camp by force, quadrant by quadrant, always promising that each eviction would be the last, forcing the migrants into smaller and more cramped living situations, before returning shortly thereafter and clearing another section. Now, the camp is gone, but the migrants still remain. They just aren’t allowed to have any sort of shelter in place or even bedding. Kids are burying blankets underground when the sun rises so officers won’t confiscate them. Their treatment is a disgusting stain in human history, one that is getting bigger and darker.
The play drops us into the action full swing, and when I say drops us in, I really mean it. Most of why the full immersion was easy to plunge into was because of the spectacular set and staging of this show. Inside the Playhouse theatre, there’s no theatre left really. The stage is gone, and although there’s a small balcony section for audience members, the entire floor is now a makeshift café in the middle of the migrant camp, with flags of represented countries, wooden benches, and dirt floors. The whole floor is this restaurant, and I was seated at one of the central wooden benches in the café while the actors swirled around, through, and right on top of the audience. The actors walked along the tables where our drinks were (a nice Afghani refugee will give you tea upon entering the café). They leaned on my shoulder when trying to talk to their friend standing at the next table. They threw dirty dish towels at us to clean our tables. They brought the guy next to me some freshly baked bread (seriously, I saw the guy kneading and rolling it out in the kitchen area) and then they brought him a whole curry platter (better him than me, thank goodness). I’ve seen immersive staging before, but this was unique, and it was so effective in making you care about what was happening.
And what was happening was chilling. The play begins right when the French authorities are beginning their ‘eviction process’, by forcibly, violently clearing an occupied part of the camp. You hear names of people who have died. Everything is loud, terrifying, and just when you’re starting to get short of breath, a calming presence interrupts and says we better start at the beginning of the story instead of the end. It’s unsettling storytelling, and incredibly powerful.
This calming presence is Safi, played by Ammar Haj Ahmad though I still can’t believe he was an actor who got to go home safe after the show. Quickly, and then continuously over the two acts, Safi will become someone we and the other refugees learn to trust and value, which is always a dangerous thing to do, as he demonstrates. A refugee from Syria, he becomes a leader of this camp, along with the Afghani restauranteur Salar (Ben Turner, remarkable) and Mohammed from Sudan (Jonathan Nyati), both giving their characters a sincere sense of gravitas and earnestness. It makes sense that the rest of the camp looks to them for guidance, even though they are just as lost and defeated.
There are a few other standout performers who are given time to shine, like John Pfumojena’s Okot, a Sudanese teenager who tells us how he has died and keeps dying deaths over and over in a somber, slow scene that was given remarkable amount of time to grow in an otherwise fast-paced show. But the entire cast is top-notch, and if I could give an award for best cast or ensemble (different from the theoretical Best Ensemble Tony Award that people are clamoring for that I object to (that would be for the unnamed chorus members only and so dancers who happen to be cast in top shows frequently could be like 10-time Tony winners and that’s just nonsense)), I would award this phenomenal cast. Not least the little girl Amal who barely says anything but breaks your heart into pieces so effectively that at the end I was like DO YOU NEED A HOME???
Everything about this play feels pitch perfect because it is all so accurate, from the Eton-educated British lad whose heart is in the right place but has no idea what he’s offering to deal with, to the infighting among migrants, to the condescending French authorities who lie with no compunction. Of course, the most staggeringly distressing part was the end, when we see actual footage of what has happened and how atrociously the media has handled it. The poor coverage and sometimes outright lies put out there about the camp led directly to Brexit, I believe, and I wonder just how many of the Brits in my audience voted for it, and whether they regret their decision. I hope they are doing something to help make amends for their actions. And if any theatre could produce that extraordinary result, it’s this extraordinary play, a theatrical event that you should run to see.
The Jungle runs two hours and 45 ish minutes, in two acts. There’s lots of smoke, mainly non-cigarette ‘explosion’ smoke that I almost choked on and had to breathe through a paper towel for a minute, so be warned if you have asthma that like, you should bring your inhaler. Also, it’s pretty gritty, both in subject and in physical being. I picked the wrong show to wear a fancy dress to, I’ll tell you that. If you are sitting downstairs in the café, wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty and clothes you can move in (to get on the bench) and try not to let them throw the dirty towels at your head.
Our seats right in the middle of the action at the Afghan Café were originally $25 (that’s pounddollars) and now are apparently $100! So you should run faster!