The center, once again, will not hold.
Here in the United States, a president who may or may not have stolen his election works hard to drive the country and the world further apart. The United Kingdom hurdles toward its Brexit deadline, defiantly unsure what to do about it. Provincial Frenchmen in yellow construction vests riot in Paris, protesting a gas tax and everything that gas tax represents. Hungary and Poland, NATO and E.U. members both, are abandoning democracy under right-wing autocrats.
The world is being destabilized because of two things that happened in the first decade of this century: The financial crisis, which devastated the lives of the middle class and poor while the rich, who caused it, got off with wrist slaps; and the war in Iraq and its mishandled aftermath, which destabilized the Middle East, created ISIS, and set off a global refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, on Broadway this season, we’re watching a prom, and a stand-up comic, and Cher.
Down under the Manhattan Bridge, however, St. Ann’s Warehouse is presenting The Jungle, a British import that actually dives into these crises, and it’s extraordinary.
What was known as The Jungle was a refugee encampment outside Calais, in northern France, just near where the Chunnel dips under the Channel. It’s where migrants from around the world — from Syria and Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, other countries known for their crises — bided their time, hoping to hop on a truck or a ferry and make the final, illegal crossing from the Continent into England. It was never an official refugee camp, U.N.-sanctioned and NGO-administered, but at its peak it housed several thousand desperate people. They are the embodiment of the cause-and-effect from what happened in the Bush administration to what’s happening now: Iraq and the financial crisis brought them to Europe; that they’re in Europe is threatening to destroy Europe. Eventually, French authorities bulldozed the camp. But before they were dispersed yet again, the refugees built a community there. The Jungle tells the story of that community.
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, two Brits who went to The Jungle to build a theater there, it’s a smart, searching, provocative piece the finds hope in this miserable place and questions how and why the world allows human beings to live like that. And as staged by Stephen Daldry, the multi-award-winning director of everything from Billy Elliot to The Hours to The Crown, and Justin Martin, who served as associate director on many of Daldry’s recent projects, it’s an immersive experience that puts spectators inside a restaurant in the camp, with the action going on all around us. It ran first at the Young Vic in London, in a similar staging, then moved to the West End, and it won raves in both places.
It will here, too, because it both tells a story that’s important and presents that story with such bracing immediacy.
The action opens as the camp is set to be dismantled; the refugees and the British do-gooders who are trying to lead them are trying to coordinate a census, to prove that the eviction is based on false information. It’s a chaotic moment, people muttering and yelling from all around the theatergoers, that creates a sense of the chaos that must have existed inside the camp.
And then we flash back to March 2015, the founding of the camp. We meet a handful of residents, representatives of their communities, Syrian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Afghan. The leaders are Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), a Syrian, who serves as our narrator; and Salar, an Afghan (Ben Turner), the owner of the restaurant and a charismatic if reluctant leader of the full community. We watch them divide into national communities but work together for the good of the collective; we see them build churches and houses, and that restaurant. We learn how they go out each night, hunting for lorries that can jump onto and hide inside of, to make it to England.
We also meet the English volunteers who arrive and take charge, and we see how they’re living a fantasy of a modern white man’s burden. They’re refugees of a different sort, from Boxer (Trevor Fox), a drunk from Newcastle whose ex-wife won’t let him see his young daughter, to Sam (Alex Lawther), a pink-cheeked Eton toff who arrives in a knee-length Barbour and is sure he can fix everything. And we’re reminded just how colonialist even these well-intentioned efforts can be: “Jungle” is an Englishman’s take on the camp’s initial name, “Zhangal,” a Pashto word for forest.
Throughout, we are in the thick of things, patrons at Salar’s restaurant, sort of. The playing space is a relatively small pathway amid the tables and benches; plus, actors roam among the spectators. Virtually all the lighting is from overhead floodlights. Set designer Miriam Buether and lighting designer Jon Clark have made us not just observers of this tent city, but residents of it, too.
The sprawling cast, which includes several refugees Murphy and Robertson worked with in the Jungle, is uniformly excellent but also a true ensemble — each player is better for the collaboration. When Okot (John Pfumojena) tells of his journey from Darfur to the Jungle, in the emotional opening of Act Two, it is heartbreaking and chilling, all the more so for the gentle, probing way Safi and an Englishwoman, Beth (Rachel Redford), coax the story from him.
The play does not have a happy ending. The camp is destroyed, its community dispersed. Several residents finally attempt the journey to England; we don’t know if they make it. And yet The Jungle manages to convey a message of hope. Because what we learn is that refugees are, by their very nature, hopeful people.
“Everyone tries,” Safi says, back when he introduces us to the Jungle. “You know this word, a good word all languages understand. Try is the reason we are here. Try for truck. Try for train. Try for boat. Try for UK.” The trying is what matters. “So many try.”
And so we are reminded that we, too, must try.
The Jungle opened December 9, 2018, at St. Ann’s Warehouse and runs through January 27, 2019. Tickets and information: stannswarehouse.org