The Jungle review – intimate tragedy from across the Channel

Young Vic, London
Testimony from Calais refugees makes vital drama in a compelling but unsentimental document of our times

The Jungle is one of the most vital productions of the year. Desperate and vibrant. Joes Murphy and Robertson, who set up Good Chance theatre in the Calais refugee and migrant camp known as “the Jungle”, have based their play on what they heard and saw there. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s production punches it home.

Miriam Buether has recreated the Young Vic as the camp’s Afghan Cafe: a canvas roof, a muddy floor, splashes of colour, rough wooden benches for the spectators. Any qualms about seeming to be a participant while really being a voyeur are met by the production. You are there like the French and British authorities, encircling and containing talent and despair. The UK volunteers on stage reflect your own muddle: the earnest mature man carrying a bag for life; the Etonian who judges the place “Glastonbury without the toilets”.

That’s the periphery. The core is the experience of people who don’t choose to be in the camp. John Pfumojena is composed and still as he tells the story of Okot. The people smugglers laid him down, put a concrete slab on his back – and made a video on his phone to send to his mother in Darfur with a demand for money. Okot was 17. His ringtone was The White Cliffs of Dover.

There is no sentimentality about the camp. The camp was needed and it was terrible. The gifts of its inhabitants occasionally flash out exuberantly: a beautiful clatter on a drum; wild dancing; fragrant food in the cafe, which AA Gill visited, giving the chicken livers four stars. But so does ferocity and factionalism – in which the audience is embedded. There is low-level noise as men walk around trying to get hold of families on their mobiles. There is hullabaloo: when desperation turns to violence, the fights threaten to burst off the stage.

This is a place full of intimate tragedy in which there is no privacy. The death of a teenager trying to escape is yelled across the heads of the audiences. When the police arrive they look like armour-plated aliens.

“How did you survive?” a volunteer asks one of the inhabitants. “We didn’t,” he replies. “We are different now.’

The Jungle is at the Young Vic, London, until 9 January

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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