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The Jungle at Playhouse Theatre. Credit: Marc Brenner

Great is the hope that makes men cross borders

17 July 2018 Suzanne Frost

Theatre can be a great source of entertainment or escapism – but viewing it merely as a tool for these purposes would be to sorely underestimate its power. Theatre also has a duty to comment or report on the subjects that define our current times. “So often, we rely on journalism to be the source of what is happening in the world, but equally, it’s the responsibility of playwrights to discuss these stories with the strength and humanity that comes from this art form” stress Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. And so the two young playwrights transformed their own first-hand experience of living in the refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’ into an astonishing, life-affirming and heart-breaking piece of theatre.

John Pfumojena (Okot), Mohamed Sarrar, Cherno Jagne and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle. Credit: Marc Brenner

‘Immersive’ is a fashionable word getting tossed around with abandon these days, but what set designer Miriam Buether has done to the Playhouse Theatre redefines the term. You leave the foyer and find yourself in the camp. It is immediately unsettling. Figures lurk in dark corners, tired and dirty looking, the ground is covered in mud and bark; personal belongings- a few photographs of loved ones, a cuddly toy- are tucked away on stained mattresses and rolled up sleeping bags. It feels chaotic and always on the brink of blowing up, fumes of spiced tea and cooking waft in the air, you hear the distant noise of traffic from the French motorway. Entering the Jungle puts a lump in your throat before the play even starts – how was it possible that we let a place of such desolation and deprivation exist, in the middle of first-world Europe?

The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

All auditorium seats have been ripped out and your ticket will tell you if you will be placed in the Afghanistan or Sudan section, or if life’s lottery has dealt you a place on the White Cliffs of Dover, where you will be at a safe, comfortable distance from the smell, dirt and desperation below. Downstairs, you find yourself in a recreation of the Afghan Café (which the late and great Sunday Times food critic AA Gill favourably reviewed in 2015), a place of community and debating, run with pride, passion and a certain swagger by the disarmingly charming Salar (played with authority and generosity by Ben Turner). Perched on narrow benches or sprawled on mattresses, the audience gets served chai tea and flat bread from Salar’s kitchen. It happens to be delicious. In what little space you thought you had between you and your neighbour, someone will try to set up tent or throw a sleeping bag down in the dirt on every available spot.

Ben Turner (Salar) in The Jungle. Credit: Marc Brenner

Bending the words of Dickens, it was the worst of places, it was the best of places. The French authorities enter only in full riot gear or with plastic protection over their fancy shoes. Nobody in the camp understands French. 5,497 people lived in this make shift shantytown, most of them men, many of them unaccompanied children. The play doesn’t gloss over or sanctify the refugees – they are not innocent or without flaw. The young men are aggressive and easily angered, always ready to fight, they carry hate and racism, they steal and take advantage of each other’s misery.
“It takes pain to live side by side”, repeats Safi, our Syrian narrator and guide in the camp, who breaks the fourth wall and reflects on what he sees around him.

And yet, people from clashing, widely different cultures, religions, values, languages, made the gigantic human effort to live together, united in grief, hurt, fear and hope. So much hope. The uncompromising relentless joy and zest the migrants convey is infectious, and just when you find yourself laughing with them, when they hug you and dance around celebrating a small victory over sanitation or English grammar, the Bataclan attacks happen. “This is exactly what we are running away from, ISIS, Daesh”, they cry, but the damage is done, the refugees find themselves on the wrong side of Europe’s fear and pain, as the hurt over the dead youths of Paris overpowers all empathy for the suffering of others.

French Riot Police in The Jungle. Credit: Marc Brenner

Of course, what the play does, and does outstandingly well, is to give names and faces and stories to an issue we callously call “the migration crisis”. But it does so much more. The tears that are shed, and there are many in the audience, are tears for the suffering of human beings, tears of shame at our own passiveness or indeed over-eagerness to get involved. When the British volunteers arrive, doubtlessly full of good will and ideas for improvement, they once again “go to places they don’t belong and tell people what to do”, partitioning the camp they didn’t build into sections, just as they did with continents before, whose long suffering people they now refuse to shelter. Shame on all of us. Shame on our sentimentality of sending Christmas presents to the largely muslim community to make ourselves feel better.

We cry at the fate of Alan Kurdi, of the fictive Norullah who dies on the motorway or Okot, who was tortured in Sudan and doesn’t fare much better at the hands of the French police. We cry for them because we got to know them and yet we find not enough empathy or anger in our hearts to hold our governments accountable for the fate and the suffering of the many unknown and unnamed. Surely, if we can be moved so much by a play, we must be able to do better as a human race.

Ammar Haj Ahmad (Safi) in The Jungle at Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And that is the extraordinary thing about The Jungle. It transcends all notions of theatre. You lose all sense of this being actors (some of refugee background) performing make believe for you. They are Salar, Safi, Okot or Beth teaching you what human beings are capable of, the joy, the glory, the tenaciousness, the pain, the tragedy of being alive in this day and time. It is a lesson in what it means to be human and as such, demands to be seen.
 
The Jungle is at the Playhouse Theatre currently booking until 3 November. Tickets from £15.
 
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