Colin Revolting and his son were moved to tears by the new play The Jungle, currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End.
It was said of Joan Littlewood – possibly Britain’s major contributor to 20th century theatre – that she wanted, “an auditorium where you can embrace your neighbour, eat and drink and piss on the floor.”
I chanced on that quote the day after me and my son were moved to tears and admiration by the new play The Jungle.
The play has been described as an immersive experience: a Victorian West End theatre has been totally transformed into a makeshift restaurant in the Calais ‘Jungle’. The floor is mud, the benches you sit on are thin and hard and the bread offered is in short supply.
But the immersive quality of the show is more than an attempt to get the audience to feel the hardship, cold and hunger of the citizens of the Jungle: that wouldn’t be possible. What we are in the middle of is the building of a community. A community made up of people driven from their homes and across continents for a multitude of reasons. Though the root cause for most is the history of imperialism and the continuing wars waged by capitalism.
This play has been created by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, two theatre makers who spent six months creating drama in the actual camp. The performance and recreation feels so real, produced in celebration of the camp and its achievements, that it is the actual creation of the camp and all its achievements that we are responding to.
The origins of the encampment were when some refugees from Africa and Asia, refused entry to Britain, come across a putrid piece of contaminated wasteland behind the sand dunes and decide to put aside differences to set up a refuge of sleeping bags and tents.
They call it Dzhangal which is a Pashto word meaning ‘This is the forest’.
More asylum seekers gather and they begin to structure their community so it can best function in such adversity. People who have been traumatised and abused by officials of all kinds crossing borders attempt to co exist.
That’s when some people from the UK, moved by the plight of these people and the sight of them in the media come to help.
This is one of the sources of humour in a play that is a tragedy but also a tribute.
It’s from their misunderstanding of the word Dzhangal that the media begin to refer to the camp as The Jungle.
The UK helpers have a range of motivations – simple humanity, more political drives or running away from their own challenging lives. Many of their expectations and reasons for helping and plans about how they will help are challenged by the reality of the camp as developed by the citizens. But they stay in the camp, learn from the experience and a level of mutual respect grows.
Unlike friends and comrades who have spent time giving solidarity with refugees in Calais, and who continue to do so, I have no way of knowing how credible any of these portrayals are or how complete a picture they paint of the supporters visiting the camps. I know that some of the early people showing solidarity were revolutionary socialists – which none of the characters here are – but I don’t know how fundamentally differently they would approach the situation. I’d be very interested to know what those involved in the camp think of the play. Especially if, as I did, they felt female refugee stories seemed under represented here.
The play tells the whole story of the Jungle right up to the horrific ending in 2016 when the French authorities attack and destroy the camp. The refugees’ reaction to this, in all its detail, is incredibly moving and inspiring. They have built a mini world, a society where people are helped and supported, a place where as well as basic needs, education, entertainment and beliefs are expressed. I wonder if that is true in official refugee camps?
Through dramatic scenes and storytelling the people are able to convey much of their stories of how they came to be there and the role global powers played.
I was reminded of Joan Littlewood as she was the creator of the brilliant Oh What a Lovely War! The show that depicted the horrors and humanity of the first world war – largely from the point of view of the working people sent to fight. But also of the powers-that-be that sent them to their deaths. The Jungle is like a twenty-first century equivalent where poor and working people are displaced and die due to the ongoing wars, conflict and exploitation of modern capitalism.
When the Syrian storyteller explains he is now living in Leicester, surviving on a pittance and speaking less English than he did in the Jungle, I asked myself how does the society we live in and our communities that have been bashed and battered compare to the community created for a short time outside Calais? Which really deserves to be called the Jungle?
The Jungle community may have gone but there are still many human beings on the streets of Calais and beyond whose only ‘crime’ is their need for asylum and refuge and their desire to find that in the UK. Do whatever you have to do to get to this inspirational play and gain some insight into Dzhangal.
The Jungle is playing until November at the Playhouse Theatre in London. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/…/jungle-playhouse-theat…