The Jungle ★★★★★
There are great plays on the one hand, and great productions on the other. Both are few and far between and thus deserve to be immediately embraced. The Jungle—a coproduction of the Young Vic (where it started), the National, and Good Chance Theatre, now playing on the West End—falls in the category of great, memorable, and unforgettable productions. The fact that it is a drawn-from-life statement that very much addresses the current political turmoil in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Africa only makes it more powerful; as does the bravura environmental staging from co-directors Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot and An Inspector Calls) and his longtime associate Justin Martin.
The text itself is sprawling, unmanageable, and at times purposefully hard to follow, which goes with the territory. The territory being the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp that formed in early 2015 and was bulldozed out of existence before Christmas 2016. (Calais being the French seaport, the last stop before the refugees’ goal of Great Britain.) The cast of 23 at times talks in almost that many languages, overlapping and overshouting in such a manner that theatergoers—many of whom are seated within the playing area—can’t help feeling like, well, a refugee stranded in a crowd, unable to communicate with anyone.
This can be off-putting at the beginning, set during a violent siege; but that’s the method of the piece. During the life of what was for obvious reasons called “The Jungle,” refugees from diverse countries were forced to live with historically hated neighbors, causing all sorts of ungovernable trouble. The magic of The Jungle was that inhabitants—with the help and sometime hindrance of British do-gooders—set up communities, churches, day care, and restaurants, one of which got a rave review from the food critic of The Times. Also within the community was a full-fledged theater, which is only glancingly mentioned. The Good Chance Theatre, as it was called, was founded by two Brit volunteers, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who serve as authors and co-producers of The Jungle. So we get a well-informed telling of the tale.
The Playhouse, on the Charing Cross Embankment, has been torn asunder so that only the balcony is recognizable; viewers with a long enough memory might find it similar to Broadway’s legendary Dude, with—similarly—soil and sometimes mud beneath your feet. Everything else, including the seating, is seemingly assembled in a makeshift way from whatever materials came to hand. The design is by Miriam Buether, whose brilliant work has been seen in the States in Three Tall Women and Machinal.
The performances are so vibrant and excellent that it is hard to single them out. Mention must be made, though, of Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, a Syrian who serves as something of a narrator; Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, who opens the restaurant with what The Times singled out for its“perfect” chicken livers; and an amusing Freddie Meredith, adding comedy as a naïve volunteer out of Eton. Most dynamic is John Pfumojena, as the 17-year-old Okot from Darfur, who has a chillingly searing speech about his journey from Africa that you’ll find impossible to put out-of-mind. This same Pfumojena, apparently not as young as he looks, is also credited for “musical direction/composition.”
The Jungle has overtaken London since it first opened in December. Following the West End run, the production transfers to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, starting December 4 (through January 13). Tickets shall certainly be most impossible to get, so be forewarned and order now. Because The Jungle is altogether remarkable.
The Importance of Being Earnest ★★
The Oscar Wilde Season from Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company ends with a let’s-do-it-the-way-the-author-would-have-written-it-if-he-didn’t-have-to-abide-by-the-restrictive-morality-of-the-day version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Certain playwrights are prone to this sort of tinkering. Wilde, Coward, Rattigan, Albee are all susceptible; Coward and Rattigan would likely object, while Albee and his estate would simply pull the rights. Wilde, alas, is not quite able to lift a finger in resistance. And so we have this Earnest at the Vaudeville. As Sir Nöel might have put it, “please let our Private Lives alone.”
The play begins with a wildly passionate concerto excerpt from Algernon (Fehinti Balogun), with full recorded orchestral accompaniment and some boy who languorously trounces over to the piano at the climax and gives Algy a juicy kiss. The first image we see, mind you, is an oversized 18th century painting over the mantel of two fellows “wrestling,” in the manner of Georges and Albin’s living room at La Cage aux Folles.
On comes the butler Lane (Geoffrey Freshwater), a typical English old-retainer type, except that he is most clearly intimate with Algy. Later, in the finger-sandwich scene, there is an immense amount of business with one fellow stuffing food into the mouth of another with a hint of Tom Jones. The same occurs in the muffin scene. Speaking of finger sandwiches, there’s another scene in which Algy is directed to embarrass John (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) by sticking his index finger in a most indecorous place. Three times.
Which brings us back to Wilde’s play, from which we (and director Michael Fentiman) seem to have strayed. The Importance of Being Earnest shines through these staging shenanigans; the wit is clearly enunciated and displayed, and the play works. But we are left, numerous times, wondering why this and why that. For one thing, one wonders why Lady Bracknell (Sophie Thompson)—sparring with John over his baggage-room origins—doesn’t seem to notice the naked men on the wall. And why is Cecily (Fiona Button) hiding in the upstage bushes with the young-and-handsome gardener, looking mightily intimate? And what about the rest of those servants at the country house, who lurk upstage and linger in ghostly groupings; and that tableaux behind a scrim in which it appears that three of them (two female, one male) are starting to engage in a menage à something.
You are welcome to do this sort of thing, in my view, if it supports and/or enhances the text. Here, it doesn’t.
Otherwise, Wilde remains the linguistic delight of his era. There are several attractive performances: Fortune-Lloyd, as Jack, comports himself in a manner which suggests that he could easily move on to Charley’s Aunt or Cornelius Hackl; Button, as Cecily, has a pert and wise manner about her; Thompson, as Lady Bracknell, has full comedic command. The rest of the principals are OK, with Jeremy Swift providing a droll Reverend Chasuble.
Fentiman is apparently an up-and-coming director with extravagant flair. It does appear, though, that he was trying to make his West End debut with a provocative statement. This production might well remain memorable, but not in a complimentary manner.
The Jungle opened July 5, 2018, at the Playhouse (London) and runs through November 3. Tickets and information: thejungleplay.co.uk. Tickets are now on sale for its upcoming engagement at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn at stannswarehouse.org.
The Importance of Being Earnest opened August 2, 2018, at the Vaudeville Theatre (London) and runs through October 20. Tickets and information: classicspring.co.uk