It is near impossible to describe the agonizing array of emotions evoked by Joe Murphey and Joe Robertson’s, The Jungle. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, hosted by the Young Vic, and produced in partnership with the National Theatre, The Jungle is, as one patron gulped during the standing ovation at its end, “a show you will never forget”.
The Jungle is an immersive theatre experience in which the boundaries of ‘them and us’ are physically and mentally dismantled. This emotionally charged disintegration is achieved through storytelling, music, drama, poetry, movement and debate. The setting for the story is the Calais Jungle, which was, until October 2016, the home to over 8,000 men, women, and children trying to cross the Channel into the UK. People from a multitude of places, including Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Egypt, populated the Calais Jungle, a point of paramount importance to the play.
The myriads of meanings woven into the performance start, not as the actors’ storm onto the stage in deliberate confusion and chaos, but rather with the ticket each member of the audience is assigned. With your ticket you receive a nationality. You sit with your nation, in the space that they occupy within the “Zhangal” (turned “Jungle” by the Western volunteers). Some are sat on rickety old chairs and picnic benches, whilst others sit cordoned off on the floor, packed in, propped-up by piles of cushions. This premeditated separation is the first contributor to the complex dialogue of the performance. Why is it that a word on a piece of paper, which you have no control over, restricts where you may go? Why is it that it dictates your level of comfort or discomfort?
Miriam Buether then, through immensely clever set design turns the space into an Afghan restaurant, run by 32-year-old refugee, Salar. The restaurant is the thrumming hub of the Zhangal, a place of cacophonous celebration, of community, of comprise, and later, of conflict. Throughout the performance the audience not only sits in, but is also made part of the congregation. Food is proffered, eye contact is made and barriers are broken.
The story starts chronologically at the end with the arrival of the French police dressed in body armour, wielding gas weapons. Then suddenly the conflict stops. 35-year old Syrian refugee, Safi, takes to the stage as narrator. His is the voice that explains the conception of the Zhangal, “in the day we build. Everywhere, the sound of saws, hammers, works. In the absence of any help… we did it ourselves”, and also the beauty contained within it, “people meet and laugh and eat together. Share stories of great journeys, with excitement like I have never heard”.
As the play progresses, a picture emerges of a rough-and-ready democracy. Assemblies are called, houses built and friendships formed. Then, four British volunteers descend on the Zhangal, jolted into action by the death of Alan Kurdi. It is here that my one and only criticism of the performance emerges. Playing the real-life footage of Alan Kurdi on the screens around the room seemed to be not only disrespectful, but also a lazy means of inciting emotion. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the subtext, which so severely condemned the poisonous roll of the press in reporting not only about the Zhangal, but also about the refugee crisis as a whole.
Bar that blip, the performance is inundated with affecting moments and wonderful writing, which is born from Murphy and Robertson’s real life experience of living in the Calais Jungle themselves.
If you do one thing this December, watch The Jungle. You will find an excellent, enormous cast, honest intentions, authentic emotions and poignant word play.
The Jungle will be playing at the Young Vic until the 9 January 2018
Photo: David Sandison