How does a place become a home? That question thunders as you settle in and allow Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle to take up a permanent space in your heart—it certainly has in mine.
St. Ann’s Warehouse is unrecognizable; set designer Miriam Buether has transported Salar’s Afghan Café from Calais to Brooklyn. The audience sits on floor cushions or long benches and becomes guests of a makeshift restaurant in the heart of the Jungle, a refugee encampment. You are inches from the action. The performers whiz about, embracing and sharing cups of hot chai tea pumped out of a large thermos. You can smell its sweet scent, along with the dirt on the ground and the steam from naan bread. (Do you bring a home with you when you re-create its scent?)
It’s another kind of sensory overload once the play starts. The cacophony from the audience shifts seamlessly into cacophony among the characters, who have just received a “soft eviction” notice from the French government. Chaos ensues, and we experience the life of this community, where every day is a fight for survival.
I marvel at directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s brilliant control over this beast of a play and this battalion of an ensemble, while making sure that every audience member can observe and enter the action without hindering it in this tricky space. Daldry and Martin (who previously collaborated on Billy Elliot) choreograph the space so meticulously that it’s become a living thing. And the performers are powerful and connected: when one sings a prayer, you can feel the same heartbeat syncopated across the room.
So here we are, in a sort of home to some 3000 people, bearing witness to a tragedy that’s far from us but also happening along our borders, along lots of borders in this world. Safi Al-Hussain (Ammar Haj Ahmad) stops the chaos to bring us back to the beginning of the story, and the former student of English literature becomes our anchor.
“Zhangal. A Pashto word, which means forest. But this was no forest. It was an old landfill site on the edge of Calais, located between the ferry port and the channel tunnel.” We see the formation of the community: refugees and migrants from different cultures and ruined lands come here to build a new home, or at least a temporary shelter. Every one of them is here to “try”—to attempt to reach the UK. TV monitors installed around the space feed us footage from the actual site, places where the refugees jump trucks and climb fences. They try, they fail, and they try again.
The poetry of life sets in even here. Different prayers harmonize in their churches of imagination. And so the Jungle becomes sort of a United Nations of the nationless. The refugees are dirty, tired, beaten down by their ill fates—often caused by first-world countries—but they are also educated, brave, resilient, and creative people making the most out of the worst situations.
The play is about heavy things, yet it does not lack humor, nor tenderness, nor hope—a hope strengthened by its musical elements. When you hear the sound of a guitar that’s crossed deserts and oceans, surviving everything alongside its owner, you learn that music survives, sustains, and is a universal language of inclusion. Storytelling without words becomes a necessity when you have nothing, not even language.
Salar’s restaurant is the epicenter of all the stories, because food, like music, brings people together without the need of a translator. And when everyone is an outcast, no one is.
You fall in love with all of the nuanced characters: Salar (Ben Turner), the stoic and fiercely kind chef. Norullah (Mohammad Amiri), the boy who lights up a room with his quiet wit and becomes Salar’s irreplaceable lieutenant. Safi, the poet and peacemaker. Helene (Nahel Tzegal), the leader of the church. A ragtag team of Brits, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, joins the refugees: the perpetually drunk Boxer (Trevor Fox) with his quirky hats and his banjo; the no-nonsense Paula (Jo McInnes), who assumes responsibility for all the children; Beth (Rachel Redford), who wants to build a school; Sam (Alex Lawther, from Black Mirror and The End of the Fucking World), who went to Eton and is here to help build housing, live streaming his journey with a selfie stick. And there’s Derek, idealistic and well intentioned, though clueless. Hats off to the production’s way of confronting the motivations of allies with care and complexity.
“When does a place becomes a home?” the play asks. It starts to feel like one when you see the people celebrate every small blessing and happiness. The restaurant even gets a glowing review, highlighting Salar’s chicken liver for its “finesse.”
But reality sets in, beneath the veil of compromise and happiness created out of willpower. The play does not sugarcoat the tragedies each character has endured. In a dispassionate voice, Okot (John Pfumojena) tells you his story: “A refugee dies many times.” You learn about the day he had to stop being a boy, the day he had to leave his mother, leave Darfur; you learn about the genocides. The refugees are alive, but they’re no longer the people who started the journey.
Hopelessness becomes tangible. We see true understanding between people whose fates are bound together by hopelessness. Yet Okot persuades Norullah to put down his gun: “If you are crying you still have hope.” And hope also becomes tangible. “Great is the hope that makes man cross borders. Greater is the hope that keeps us alive.” The community moves 800 houses in three days after the eviction notice, but when Salar refuses to move his restaurant, every member of the community sits down before the bulldozer in solidarity. They become, briefly, invincible.
The refugees are doing their best to transform a wasteland into a home, but that doesn’t turn a mirage into a paradise. I didn’t know much about the Jungle; few in America did. But almost everyone knows about the Paris terrorist attack, which equated the refugees with the terrorists despite the facts. The refugees understand, though. Because they’d surely recognize, in those images of a burning Paris, memories of Darfur, Kabul, Basra, Halabja, and Aleppo.
This play gives you relentlessly harsh truths, but it also grants hope. It’s passionate and sincere, one of the best things I’ve seen in the past decade. The issues it tackles are urgently important; the story and characters are well developed without an ounce of pretension. The piece forces you to face your helplessness, and urges you to do more, because inaction with knowledge makes you no better than those who commit the crimes.
“When does a place becomes a home?” The question lingers. When you know you’re not alone, that you can watch the sunset, that you don’t have to keep a packed bag or your passport in your pocket at all times, in case you’re stopped on the streets by men in uniforms.
We witness evil every day, organized evil protected by laws. And what are we going to do about it, now that we know?