“This devastating, uplifting show celebrates the human capacity to build something out of nothing, to work together and try to make a difference”
The Jungle is one of the most vital productions of the year. Desperate and vibrant. Joes Murphy and Robertson, who set up Good Chance theatre in the Calais refugee and migrant camp known as “the Jungle”, have based their play on what they heard and saw there. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s production punches it home.
Miriam Buether has recreated the Young Vic as the camp’s Afghan Cafe: a canvas roof, a muddy floor, splashes of colour, rough wooden benches for the spectators. Any qualms about seeming to be a participant while really being a voyeur are met by the production. You are there like the French and British authorities, encircling and containing talent and despair. The UK volunteers on stage reflect your own muddle: the earnest mature man carrying a bag for life; the Etonian who judges the place “Glastonbury without the toilets”.
That’s the periphery. The core is the experience of people who don’t choose to be in the camp. John Pfumojena is composed and still as he tells the story of Okot. The people smugglers laid him down, put a concrete slab on his back – and made a video on his phone to send to his mother in Darfur with a demand for money. Okot was 17. His ringtone was The White Cliffs of Dover.
There is no sentimentality about the camp. The camp was needed and it was terrible. The gifts of its inhabitants occasionally flash out exuberantly: a beautiful clatter on a drum; wild dancing; fragrant food in the cafe, which AA Gill visited, giving the chicken livers four stars. But so does ferocity and factionalism – in which the audience is embedded. There is low-level noise as men walk around trying to get hold of families on their mobiles. There is hullabaloo: when desperation turns to violence, the fights threaten to burst off the stage.
This is a place full of intimate tragedy in which there is no privacy. The death of a teenager trying to escape is yelled across the heads of the audiences. When the police arrive they look like armour-plated aliens.
“How did you survive?” a volunteer asks one of the inhabitants. “We didn’t,” he replies. “We are different now.’
“You’re left awed and appalled by the testimonies of the ordeals endured. It’s warts and all – and that’s the beauty of it”
“Of all the things I have told people back home, the stuff about the theatre has caused the most eye-rolling, brow-furrowing, exasperated exhaling,” the late AA Gill wrote in a journalistic dispatch from the “Calais Jungle” in February 2016, referring to the presence in Europe’s largest migrant camp of a theatre called Good Chance.
Run by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, two pals who met at Oxford university, its name was inspired by the hopeful way that camp inhabitants had of saying: “Tonight, there’s a good chance I shall get to England”. Gill went on to defend the life-affirming value of this arty sanctuary against charges of being “a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension” and further delivered a four-star rave for the lunchtime menu at an Afghan-run caff, bowled over by its chicken liver stew.
Almost two years on, Murphy and Robertson are inviting audiences to go deep into the heart of the Jungle in an immersive re-creation of that pop-up eaterie, bulldozed weeks after Gill visited it (the makeshift metropolis was fully razed that autumn). There’s no intrepidity required, beyond a capacity to endure wooden benches (allocated according to 14 different sectors, Kurdistan, Syria and Somalia and so on) – and a dab of soil on your shoes. Chicken liver isn’t, alas, on the menu but if you’re lucky you might be handed a slice of warm naan bread.
What does the show - co-directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, and featuring a handful of actors with refugee backgrounds, some of them Jungle “alumni” - achieve? Is it boutique consciousness-raising after the event? The evening begins on a note of overwrought frenzy: frayed tempers, shouty men, the tear-gassy intrusion of riot police. It then brings itself to a halt, as if checking its own tendency to visceral cliché, and rewinds to the camp’s inception in 2015.
This enables a lot of things to emerge with impressive clarity. We get to witness the remarkable collective effort between wary, sometimes even nominally adversarial, fellow travellers towards the unknown (the UK, they hope) to transform a wasteland into a temporary home-from-home. Running alongside that, we get a keen, sometimes comic, determinedly unsentimental sense of the individual personalities striving to forge a semblance of civilisation amid chaos.
Some of the British volunteers make their charges look like the model of mental stability: there’s an excitable ex-Etonian, a drunken Geordie in flight from his ex-wife, a rescuer of children as sweary as she is good-natured. But as much as you’re left awed and appalled by the testimonies of the ordeals endured to get even to this agonisingly uncertain place, the script doesn’t rose-tint the migrants, most of them men, either. There is egotism and aggression here, as well as unexpected sweetness and light. It’s warts and all – and that’s the beauty of it. In their desperate situation, would you emerge much better? Are they so very “different”?
The camp is gone but the crisis continues. As eloquently and powerfully as any production of A Christmas Carol, this front-line drop-in drama asks you to look to your heart and enlarge it.