Leaving the theatre and walking straight into the first grey downpour of rain we had had in months never felt more fitting an atmosphere through which to hold back tears and fight the angry lump in the back of our throats that Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle left us with.
The dimming of its lights transforms the playhouse theatre of London’s Embankment into the Afgan Cafe, once the heart of the refugee camp in Calais. Aided by the darkness, we are submerged into an atmosphere of chaos and distortion, emphasised by worried shouts and concerned voices in a multitude of languages.
This play starts at the end, the ruthless demolition of this powerless, yet strong community of people by bulldozers controlled by those so distanced that they think they are doing good. It then goes on to follow the journey of the camps formation, and subsequent demolition, whilst weaving in a few powerful stories of the individual refugees.
Murphy and Robertson persistently emphasise the fact that this camp is right on our doorstep, be this through the use of screens, the repetition of just how short a distance thirty miles is, or through the closeness of the Afgan Cafe and the White Cliffs of Dover. Here, the powerful set is worth paying some attention to. The stalls of the playhouse theatre have all been taken out, and replaced with a scattering of different style tables. The audience could either sit in the ‘Afgan Cafe’, submerged in the drama, sitting next to the actors and being served food, or up in the dress circle, which was renamed ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’.
The set also includes television screens scattered around the theatre, showing the audience real news reporting and images that they may remember seeing in the media. Towards the start of the play the images of Alan Kurdî, the three year old Syrian child who was found washed up on a Turkish beach after trying to reach Kos, were shown on these screens. The familiarity of these images, and their showing right at the start of the play, set the emotional tone.
Another powerful moment, that was made even more distinct by the use of the screens, was the reporting of the tragic day in November 2015, the day that terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, and the day that the refugee camp in Calais experienced a massive blaze. The televisions showed real reporting that claimed the two incidents were linked, thus sparking anger within the audience. However, Murphy and Richardson show the solidarity, hope and resilience, holding pray for Paris signs and exclaiming their outrage at the brutal murder of the 130 people, rather than focusing on the distorted and fake headlines.
Inevitably, we all rose to our seats as the play ended, yet this standing ovation was not married with a theatre of smiles and excitement; instead each hard and fierce clap had an angry, crying, or helpless face behind it. The wave of people leaving their seats was not just in appreciation of the play and actors, like it typically is, it was in solidarity. Solidarity with the optimistic yet silently broken refugees, solidarity with the frustrated volunteers, but most of all with each other, the feeling of uselessness, guilt and anger inescapable, compelling the audience to stand with one another. This play makes you feel like somebody has shaken you, simultaneously removing a self-inflicted veil from your eyes — it is not to be missed.