The human jungle

Arts and Culture

The human jungle

Beverly Andrews reviews a powerful play based on the migrant camp at the town of Calais in France and its impact on those who found themselves marooned there.

The Jungle (Old Vic, London)

The ‘Jungle’ was a refugee encampment in France near the tiny town of Calais.  It was in use from January 2015 to October 2016 and at its height had thousands of people living there.

Its occupants were migrants who had made their way to Europe by stowing away in lorries, ferries, cars and trains – any vehicles possible – in the hope of crossing the Channel and claiming refugee status in the UK. 

The camp and those who lived there are the subject of the acclaimed Young Vic production, The Jungle, which has now transferred to London’s West End. The play seeks to give a face to those who are all too often made to appear faceless.

It starts at the conclusion to events, at the moment when the residents have received a final eviction order and the bulldozers are being sent in. Residents frantically try to rescue their belongings and in some cases, try one last desperate attempt to make their way across the channel. 

This is a chapter of a contemporary tragedy, a variation of which is being played out in countries around the world. From this ominous beginning, The Jungle rewinds to the start when there was hope, when there was the possibility of a very different conclusion.

Playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy have woven the stories of those who lived there alongside those who volunteered to help. They chart the emotional journeys of all involved over the course of that year. 

We see the stories of those who fled persecution, economic collapse and its ensuing violence, risking all they had for a fresh start. The Jungle also focuses on the grimness of the reality they arrive at.

We meet the principle characters, often with stories which are heart- breaking, such as that of the African teenager Okot, played beautifully by John Pfumojena, who appears the most desperate to cross. His past is sketched quite hazily, which is a reality for many who lived at the camp since those there usually chose not to share their past experiences, some finding it too traumatic to do so. We eventually learn that Okot had been tortured, we see the horrific scars, and understand that any return home would be a death sentence. 

We also meet the camp’s de facto leader, the eloquent Safi played by Ammar Haj Ahmad, a highly educated man who acts as the play’s narrator. He tells the story of each and every migrant we see living in the Jungle. One instance is the Middle Eastern chef, whose elegant restaurant becomes, even in the chaos of The Jungle, a gourmet treat, visited and recommended by several elite French cookery writers. The restaurant acts as a temporary retreat for him from the present horrors of his life.

Centre of conversation

The authors, Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, actually created a theatre in the Jungle and so had first-hand experience of the conditions the migrants were living in. They say: “The Jungle was a reluctant home for thousands of people from all over the world. It was a place where people built temporary lives and communities formed out of necessity. People who visited asked why we built a theatre in a refugee camp, but it has always seemed clear to us that theatre should be at the centre of the conversation.”

The play charts how for many who lived there during the year, hope turned to despair as the legal channels to migrate legally were taken away, like the camp itself, section by section, as areas were deemed illegal and simply destroyed by the authorities.

Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre, states of The Jungle: “Having visited the Calais Jungle at the end of 2015, it felt incredibly important to tell this story. Joe and Joe’s script, together with Stephen and Justin’s production, perfectly captures the lives of so many individuals caught up in an impossible situation. The Jungle is an unforgettable experience which is both powerful and moving, and it is wonderful that it has now found a home in the West End.”

In the play, once it becomes apparent that the camp will be destroyed, we see a young volunteer deciding to pay a trafficker to take at least the African teenager, Okot, and Safi to the UK. But once she leaves, the trafficker decides to raise his price and declares he now only has room for one and Safi has to choose whether to save the boy or himself  – in the end he chooses himself. 

We see him a few months later, living a lonely life as a displaced person, waiting for a decision on whether he will be granted leave to remain in the UK. 

Given that illegal migration had become a key campaign theme in the US elections, where it was used particularly appallingly by the current US President, Donald Trump, The Jungle forces us to examine our humanity. The Jungle shows so clearly what happens when people are slowly robbed of their dignity and ultimately, their most important possession, hope.     NA

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