It’s important that we find new ways to express our opinions and our stories. Social media is definitely helpful as are newspapers and leaflets; demonstrations; gigs and attempts to get songs into the charts. But the oldest method for circulating ideas has largely been ignored. There are not many political plays being written.
I have seen a few ‘political’ plays recently that seek to explore the drama of power and principles. Mostly these have been admirable productions, but there has been an academic or philosophical air to them that fails to fire me up about issues affecting us now. That is not the case with ‘The Jungle’.
‘The Jungle’, which is sold out at ‘The Young Vic’ until 9 January (with only returns available) is the story of the refugee camp in Calais that became home to over 6,000 people.
The first thing that makes the play so notable is the staging.
We sit within a room (the auditorium) that is a massive mocked up cafe. We are seated in zones (‘Afghanistan’, ‘Sudan’, ‘Libya’) just like the occupants of the camp. Each seat includes a counter table in front with condiments (salt and pepper shakers, ketchup). Underfoot, there is dusty earth and bits of bark. To get to our seats, we pass mocked up shelters and a small cafe. Before the play even starts, we feel part of the camp.
There is no gentle introduction to the play. It starts with the camp facing up to the police imminently coming to clear away the land. Face masks are given out to audience members and advise about dousing yourself in coca cola if hit by teargas.
It’s then that we meet the main character in the play, Safi. He is the chorus who decides how the story is told. While we are caught up in the upcoming drama of the police breaking into the camp, he stops the scene and tells us that we must go back to the beginning of the story.
Safi’s interjections remind us that this is not a production that we can daydream in, but a performance in which we are grounded and present. To funny effect, later on, he suddenly announces: ‘I think now is a good time for an interval’.
It’s not just Safi who engages with us. Members of the cast put their hands on our shoulders as they talk, or apologise if a prop nearly hits an audience member. And, once during the first half, a cast member wipes the counter in front of me with a cloth.
As we watch the development of the camp, we see how refugees from different countries built up their own communities in different zones, how they sometimes argued but, ultimately, came together. It is an exciting place to be and it shows humanity at its best: building a vibrant community, with music, dancing, restaurants, children’s and women’s centres, churches and mosques. All this, even when there is a traffic jam in Calais most of the camp runs out in an attempt to find a way into England.
Despite the fact that the Theresa May and the British government were not admitting refugees from the camp, ‘The Jungle’ shows that there were many good intentioned British people who came to the support of the refugees. At first this is amusing, but the longer the play runs, the more noticeable it is that these people had compassion far beyond anything the French authorities could muster.
To contrast with the humour and the music, ‘The Jungle’ also tells the story of the migrants and their traumatic passage from their homeland. We hear about the people who died and the perilous journeys across sea. It is impossible not to feel compassion for all migrants who have been forced to leave their countries.
The play lasts two hours and 45 minutes and, when I was told this before it started, I had thought this seemed very long. But the power of the production showed that an audience can have a long attention span – there really is no need to dumb down.
The play has been written with an urgency to tell the story. There is an earnestness to it that defies convention. And I was not alone in feeling deeply moved by this. Most of the audience stood up to give a standing ovation and there were several people in tears.
‘The Jungle’ will make a big impression if it is given an extended run and tours the country. It gives people an insight into the world of refugees that cannot be found elsewhere. And it exposes the cold brutality of countries that carried out military operations in the Middle East and then failed to look after those whose lives were destroyed.
I hope that ‘The Jungle’ gets the financial support it deserves and that it encourages a wave of new political plays that transform our culture.