The lion, in the mighty jungle, does not sleep tonight. He roars, with a thousand disparate voices.
The wasteland in question is the so-called Calais Jungle, which in 2015 grew on a former landfill site near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel which connects the French port city to Folkestone. On a clear day, residents of the Jungle could indeed see the White Cliffs of Dover across the water, but passage over this last step on the migrant trail from poverty/repression/war in Africa to the mythical promised land of the U.K. was torturous.
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, two recent Oxford grads, spent seven months as volunteers at the Jungle, where they established a theater-for-the-people called the Good Chance Theatre Dome. Following the bulldozing of the camp by the French government in 2016, the two Joes returned to London and wrote a play called The Jungle, for which they were joined by directors Stephen Daldry (of An Inspector Calls and both film and stage versions of Billy Elliot) and Justin Martin. Two indispensable London nonprofit theaters—the National and the Young Vic—combined forces to present it last December at the Young Vic. The production transferred, on waves of acclaim, across the Thames to the Playhouse. It has now, precisely a year after the Young Vic opening, jumped the Atlantic to St. Ann’s Warehouse on the port of Brooklyn.
But this is not merely the story of a triumphant theatrical production. The Jungle is living history, which would make it impressive enough. But the method of the piece inserts “we, the people,” literally into the action. The production features one of those great sets that transforms the theater space into the world of the play. The creative assemblage has more or less built a refugee camp within the confines of St. Ann’s, and crammed 300 spots for spectators into 14 random seating areas.
Thus, we do not simply watch the show; we see it, feel it, and smell it. (The Calais Jungle included a makeshift Afghan restaurant which managed to get a four-star review from The Times of London; the central area of the set represents the tables and benches of the restaurant.) Thus, patrons are not merely presented with an impassioned representation of this monstrous refugee camp that helped bring world attention to the plight of the migrants; we are plunked inside the story, inside the migrant camp, and if you don’t keep your elbows off the table you could well get trampled. (Before the play proper begins, Salar—the restaurant proprietor—offers friendly caution to patrons sitting in danger seats that “the action might get ‘exciting,’ but we are careful and will keep you very safe.”)
The Jungle arrives with its original cast intact (with the exception of the two local seven-year-olds, who alternate as the young girl stranded in the camp). This was not an easy import, with three of the actors—two Iranians and one Syrian—ineligible due to the U.S. travel ban. The last, Ammar Haj Ahmad, only got through when the British government granted him emergency U.K. citizenship, thus allowing his participation.
While The Jungle would surely thrive with replacement casting, Mr. Ahmad is central to play as Safi, who serves as narrator and becomes something of the moral conscience of the piece. Ben Turner (as the restaurateur) is the other mainstay of the refugee population, with a notable contribution from Nahel Tzegal as Helene from Eritrea. The naïve Brit volunteers, who more or less stand in for the majority of the audience, provide much of the evening’s drollery and some of its most affecting moments. Alex Lawther as eighteen-year-old Sam from Eton, and Rachel Redford as the upper class but down to earth Beth, make especially good impressions.
The most riveting moments come from John Pfumojena as Okot, the 17-year-old refugee from Darfur. In a sequence that opens the second act—which might be the first quiet scene of the evening—he has a searing speech about his harrowing journey from Africa. Despite his apparent youth, Pfumojena also composed the music for the play.
Daldry and Martin keep most of the evening a veritable swirl of conversation, movement and emotion. One cannot offer too much praise for the scenery by Miriam Buether, which serves not merely as a “set” but the entire playing and seating area. Buether is a busy UK designer whose stateside work includes the recent Three Tall Women, Mike Bartlett’s Cock, and the Roundabout’s Machinal. If you did not see these productions, let me assure you that the sets were in each case remarkable. Buether returns to Broadway this week, with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Watching The Jungle at London’s Playhouse in August, one wondered how the already-announced St. Ann’s transfer would be received in the United States, which does not have quite the same immigrant presence as the U.K. (and London, in particular). But my pondering did not take into account Trump’s latest hostelry in the Great State of Texas, as memorialized by those searing photos of wailing toddlers cowering beneath foil blankets. While these images could not have been on the imagination of the British creators of The Jungle, it seems that in 2018 the jungle is not in Calais but on our shores.
The Jungle opened December 9, 2018, at St. Ann’s Warehouse and runs through January 27, 2019. Tickets and information: stannswarehouse.org