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Theatre in Review: The Jungle (St. Ann's Warehouse)

John Pfumojena. Photo: Teddy Wolff

The infinitely malleable space at St. Ann's Warehouse has been turned into something wildly unfamiliar, yet thoroughly pertinent to this troubled moment: One enters through a ramshackle wooden hut, past a tiny kitchen where a cook is pounding dough, and into a large, low-ceilinged room (topped with swaths of cloth) divided into areas named after countries, such as Somalia, Palestine, and Syria. Inside is a warren of long tables, banks of seating, and a stage that is essentially a series of interlocking catwalks. Middle Eastern music plays, television screens display footage from a Bollywood film number. Sound effects include passing cars and trains. This is the Afghanistan restaurant in the Calais Jungle, in 2015. It is both a hellish place of waiting and a miracle of cooperation, where some of the most marginalized of the world's people have a found a way to coexist while waiting for their futures to begin. And, as the houselights go down and the play starts, it will become the site of an appalling -- and, apparently, legal -- human rights tragedy.

Before it was destroyed in 2016, the Jungle was an encampment for refugees located near the French coastal city of Calais. It sprang up because its inhabitants wanted to get to the United Kingdom, and because of its status as a checkpoint between the countries, it offered opportunities not found in other locations. Some of the residents paid smugglers to hide them in trucks hauling foodstuffs and other goods. Others, terrifyingly, attached themselves to the undercarriage of the Eurostar, holding on for dear life as the train made its way through the Channel Tunnel. Others spent weeks or months waiting for a "good chance," the local code word for a way into the country of their dreams.

As the population grew to more than seven thousand, the Jungle loomed as a humanitarian nightmare. But its citizens organized themselves, with the help of NGOs and freelance aid workers, creating a kind of functioning municipality with shanty homes, rudimentary sanitary facilities, some form of schooling, and bars, cafes, restaurants, and a theatre. During its short existence, the Jungle stood as a rebuke to the conscience of the West: It amassed in one place a substantial number of the people for whom wealthier nations have no use. And, in a world riven by tribal and sectarian hatreds, it gave the lie to the idea that diametrically opposed ethnic and religious groups were incapable of dwelling side by side. It housed more truth than we can bear, so, naturally, it had to be razed.

The Good Chance Theatre Company presented performances in the Jungle in a 12m geodesic dome; out of the experience of its founders, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, has come The Jungle, a teeming canvas of humanity struggling to build a DIY society amid dirt, wind, rain, cold, poverty, and a world indifferent to its plight. The action begins at the end, in chaos, as bulldozers sent by the French government surround the perimeter and a dead body is found, marking another life lost trying to cross the English Channel; it then flashes back to the community's early days, detailing how a cooperative way of life comes into being. Startling things begin to happen: As a group of Muslim men line up for their prayers, Safi, a Syrian who acts as narrator, notes, "At home, they were fighting. In [the Jungle], they were praying, Sunni and Shia together." Later, breaking up a skirmish between two young men, Salar, who runs the restaurant, adds, "No more fighting. We are hated by enough people."

Nevertheless, the Jungle exists permanently on the edge of disaster. Daily, terrible calculations must be made: How much risk can one assume in trying to get to the UK, and what are the chances of attaining political asylum there? There are hundreds of unaccompanied children in the camp, filthy and undernourished; who will speak for them? The inhabitants have already endured unimaginable hardship: walking across thousands of miles of desert or crossing the Mediterranean in tiny boats packed to the last centimeter with human cargo. And the French government, in collusion with the United Kingdom, wants nothing more than to make the entire problem go away, by any means necessary, to avoid a loss of face. Nor do these sovereign nations recognize the role they have played in creating the disorder that breeds refugees. As Salar notes, with quiet devastation, to a British volunteer, "One day I will tell you about my village in Afghanistan. You have destroyed it three times in the last two hundred years."

The Jungle unfolds in a whirl of music, arguing, sporting battles, violent outbursts, and moments of introspection followed by savage one-on-one confrontations, as the dream of making the Jungle into a real city -- "a new Jerusalem," in the words of one volunteer -- collides with the reality of governmental forces bent on its destruction. The large cast is filled with distinctive characters: the boyish, excitable Norullah (Mohammad Amiri), who offers a gleeful demonstration of how to hide in a truck bound for Britain; Boxer (Trevor Fox), a doddering, alcoholic Brit on the run from his vengeful ex-wife, who finds a substitute daughter in Little Amal, an unaccompanied minor; Sam (Alex Lawther), a recent Eton graduate, who applies his urban-planning skills while trying to live down his posh background; Ali (Rachid Sabitri), a smuggler who traffics in human misery and sends the profits home to Iraqi Kurdistan to fund the war against ISIS; and Paula (Jo McInnes), a tart-tongued volunteer who saves her most scathing comments for the then-Home Secretary, "Theresa darling buds of fucking May." Perhaps the most compelling plotline involves Okot (John Pfumojena), a youth from Darfur whose journey to Calais is presented in hair-raising detail, and Beth (Rachel Redford), a volunteer who frantically tries to arrange his passage to the UK. Keeping tabs on everything are Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who draws us into the life of the camp and provides periodic updates, and Salar (Ben Turner), whose mordant cynicism and frequently oppositional attitude is complicated by his fatherly feeling for Norullah. (Salar's restaurant is the recipient of a rave review in The Times of London, a seemingly improbable detail but for the fact that A. A. Gill, The Times' food expert, did just that, as is noted in the program.)

Under the direction of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, none of these fine actors -- nor anyone else in the company -- ring a false note, even as they scatter through the audience, performing tense and intimate scenes inches away from the viewers. Adding to the verisimilitude are Miriam Buether's intricate, rough-hewn set (which, late in the action, executes a startling coup de théâtre); Catherine Kodicek's authentically ragged costumes; Jon Clark's lighting, which fluently reshapes the playing space; Paul Arditti's sound design, which inundates one with the roaring whoosh of the Eurostar streaking by; and the video design of Tristan Shepherd and Duncan McLean, which includes a breaking-news update, by an NGO worker, from what is left of the Jungle today, following the brutal razing that scattered its inhabitants to the four winds.

When does a place become a home? This question reverberates throughout Murphy and Robertson's script, even in a coda that exposes the strangely ambivalent experience of one character who is granted refugee status on arrival in Leicester. To see The Jungle right now -- as the United Kingdom's Brexit plan, which is driven largely by fear of immigration, teeters on the edge of defeat, possibly ushering in an era of political upheaval -- is to experience the forces of history in a way that happens in the theatre only rarely. You don't need me to explain to grasp the awful parallel between the Jungle and the plight of the Central American migrants languishing in detention centers on both sides of the US' southern border. As politician after politician will piously tell you, we need a more sensible immigration policy. But as this towering work makes clear, mercy must come first. -- David Barbour

(10 December 2018)

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