Let me start at the end. I don’t usually stand when I applaud a performance. Maybe I’m cynical, or just plain lazy. A production might be fantastic, but to get me on my feet I need something incredible. Groundbreaking. Something that throws out every rule and theatrical cliché.
In 2011, the writers of this play, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, were at university. They’re not veterans of playwriting; they’re only a few years out of uni. In 2015 they founded the Good Chance Theatre in Calais’ refugee camp, The Jungle. Now, in 2018, they have their first full length play based on their experience in the camp.
The Playhouse is a normal West End theatre. Seats, stage, carpeted floor, and the inevitable long queue for only the ladies’ (one day someone will sort it out). But when I went to watch The Jungle, there was no carpet.
The walls were tacky fabric and the corridors to our seats constructed with cheap wooden board. You see, they’ve converted the theatre into an Afghan refugee restaurant. And, like The Jungle, they name each section of our temporary homes, our ‘seats’, by country. I sat in Iran. A few feet away were Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan. I say ‘seats’ because there weren’t any as such.
There were benches next to the stage and a platform with a few cushions away to the side. I suppose there were hints of an Elizabethan round, and in this mock restaurant actors actually cooked Afghan food, smoked real e-cigs, and cracked open real beer. On the fabric walls was an Arsenal flag, a few posters, and a graffitied Steve Jobs after a refugee makeover standing amidst the words “London Calling”. It was brilliant.
After half an hour I had pins and needles and my arse was numb, but they’d already taken me in. I wasn’t in the West End. I was perched in a ramshackle restaurant at the heart of the Calais Jungle.
Although the stage and setting might have the shock factor, the play really hinges on fragmentation. One storyline of trust and betrayal does resolve, but for the main part the play is a series of fragmented events.
The disjointed style of speech supports this. As young British volunteer, Beth stands centre stage with Okot, there’s no flowery language in her words. She makes mistakes. She halts, and her voice jars and trembles. Little by little the writers force us to believe this is a real and unscripted conversation. Of course, in other moments the writing is more precise.
As Okot explains to Beth the journey across the Mediterranean, bodies on bodies, trapped in a boat too small, and everyone looking to religion for comfort, Safi the narrator muses that if you were to stand on one of those Greek beaches beside the water, “You will hear these sounds like the sea itself is praying”.
As the play shifts from scene to scene, a set of questions become familiar. Migrant, refugee, or person? Resist or relocate? And, What is all this for? Scraps of conversation, music, and television clips float between the fragments in focus, bringing context to them.
Interestingly, for large swathes of the play, the theatre is lit up.
The audience cannot hide its tears. The audience cannot hide its embarrassment. Only a few wavering accents and an advert-style plea at the end of the play remind us this is indeed a performance.
So I did stand to clap the cast, and as I did I glanced around the audience. Many seemed dazed. Perhaps they’d expected comfier seats, or maybe, like me, they stood in shock and awe of this beautiful play that is unlike any other that’s come before it.
After a sold-out run at the Young Vic, The Jungle has its West End opening on 5th July at The Playhouse Theatre, London, and runs until 3rd November. This week it won the South Bank Sky Arts Award in the 2018 theatre category. Tickets at http://atgtickets.com/shows/the-jungle/playhouse-theatre/