It is not very often that a play warms your heart and stabs you in the chest in equal measure. The Jungle is a cacophony of human emotion – blistering in its truth and depth. A story that yearns to be heard.
From the moment you walk in, there is a feeling of community: “United people of the Jungle.” More so than any play I have ever been to, the audience are chatting. I was offered a jelly sweet by a stranger sat next to me and, later, a chocolate truffle by another in front. Yet, from the outset, the divisions are there for all to see – on each ticket is a country referring to the seating area allocated. Above them are the flags of the nations represented in the Jungle: Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and – rather incongruously – Arsenal: a flag that all nations can support.
The Jungle tells the story of the refugee camp in Calais by the same name, through the eyes of twelve refugees from Kurdistan, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea; five well-meaning but hapless British volunteers and a hated French official. The cast includes three refugees who spent time in the Jungle themselves: Mohamed Sarrar, Bruk Kumelay and Moein Ghobsheh, which lends an authenticity to the project as a whole. We are lead through the realities of the camp by Safi, expertly played by Ammar Haj Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who has a degree in English literature and languages from Aleppo.
We understand the desperation of youth through joker Norullah (Mohammad Amiri), a 15-year old Afghan who becomes like a son to Salar (Ben Turner) the tirelessly stubborn owner of the restaurant in which we sit. Whilst the play feels in some ways like a celebration of the community that was established despite all odds, it constantly reminds us that its building was never intentional, they wanted to create a home across the channel – “We eat for UK, sleep for UK, shit for UK.”
The writers, Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, who graduated from Oxford in 2011, spent seven months in the camp creating the Good Chance Theatre. Throughout the play they subtly invoke their conscience through the British volunteers – Sam (Alex Lawther) an Eton boy who thinks the housing can be solved by algorithms. He is chastened, to great comic effect, when told that this is not actually an English word but an Arabic one. Boxer (Trevor Fox) an empathetic drunk tell us that he is also a ‘refugee’ – “Fleeing the authoritarian regime of his ex-wife.”
Not only does this allow us to question what volunteers’ roles should be in refugee camps but we are also able to empathise with them. At the most powerful moment of the play, 17 year-old Okot (John Pjumojena) tells 18-year-old Beth (Rachel Redford) the story of his journey. The impact is magnified because we see our responses reflected in her reactions. The only time in the play when Okot smiles is when, in this speech, he tells us of the beauty of the sunrise in Darfur – all he wants is to be at home. The other refugees join him in the telling of the story and it becomes all of their stories – the horror that they have already been through to get to this “hell” is unimaginable.
The set is simply made up of tables and benches which are replicas from one of the restaurants in the camp. Yet Miriam Buether’s attention to detail, from the half-empty ketchup bottles on the tables to the mini naans that the audience are given, is outstanding. Thanks to Paul Arditti’s sound design and the opening of the set, the ultimate bulldozing of the Café feels both very immediate and real.
The Jungle succeeds in telling the story of people, real people who are bound together by hope. This hope is everywhere, from the insistent chants of ‘UK’ to the English lessons where Afghans learn the past tense through telling the story of their planned escape. Yet when a well-meaning Brit suggests that they rename it ‘Hopetown’ early on there is a tangible tension – the hope seems futile. The tension is in the fights that threaten to erupt at any moment, the failure of the British and French governments to follow their own laws – “Theresa darling buds of fucking May doesn’t give a shit.” At the end of the play we are shown a video of a volunteer from Help Refugees explaining that The Jungle was destroyed in October 2016 and the Police now enact daily clearings to prevent any sense of community, any permanence from re-emerging. Still thousands of refugees lie in Calais, in hope.
At the end of the video Safi says to the audience, “Thank you for your hospitality” with not a hint of irony yet the irony is there for all to see. There is hospitality from Salar letting us into his restaurant, from the characters speaking English so that we can understand, but the UK and France have none to offer. It is comedic when Derek (Michael Gould) first blusters into the camp, apologies tumbling from his mouth on behalf of his country. Yet I can’t help but feel that I would react in exactly the same way. It is shameful how we are treating these people. I am ashamed at our lack of hospitality.
Human beings are incredible creatures: we build and we hope and we resist even when doing so seems entirely futile. The Jungle is a masterpiece which combines humour and grief, singing and shouting, celebration and fighting to tell an incredible, heart-wrenching story of a few thousand people longing to reach the White Cliffs of Dover.
Rightfully receiving a standing-ovation on Press Night, it is playing at the Young Vic until January 7th. You don’t want to miss it.