'The Jungle': Theater Review

From left: Vera Gurpinar, Ben Turner and Mohammad Amiri in 'The Jungle'
Powerful and important.
1/27/2019

Three-time Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry co-directs this acclaimed London import immersively re-creating the real-life camp in Calais that served as a temporary home to thousands of refugees.

If there were an award for best performance by a theater, St. Ann's Warehouse would win hands down. This endlessly protean Brooklyn space has been altered so substantially for so many different productions that theatergoers never know what to expect upon entering. Just weeks after it was converted into a country barn for the radical revisioning of Oklahoma!, the venue has been utterly transformed yet again with The Jungle. For this ambitious play by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the immersive set design by Miriam Buether re-creates the sprawling French refugee camp of the same name in Calais. It's a stunning feat of design, but it's not the only aspect that makes this marvelously realized production, co-directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown) and Justin Martin, essential viewing.

The playwrights have firsthand experience with their subject, having created a makeshift theater there dubbed "Good Chance." In operation for less than two years in 2015 and '16, the camp served as the temporary home for thousands of refugees from various countries who were desperately attempting to relocate to England. Many attempted to sneak over the border by stowing away on ferries, car and trains before the French government tore down the camp. On a clear day, the inhabitants could actually see the White Cliffs of Dover, the prospect of a better life in view but not within reach.

It's no spoiler to reveal that the camp is no longer in operation, since the evening begins with one of the characters announcing its fate. The play then flashes back to present a vividly rendered mosaic of life inside its environs. The audience sits on benches and at tables in what is supposed to be the Afghan Cafe, a camp restaurant that was actually given a four-star rating by a Sunday Times reviewer. Not that its Afghani proprietor Salar (Ben Turner) is entirely satisfied. "Four stars for the food? I have five on Trip Advisor!" he jokingly complains.

We're introduced to numerous characters, both residents of the camp and British volunteers who labor mightily to improve its living conditions. Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), a Syrian former literature student, serves as the de facto narrator. Several of the inhabitants relate their own stories, such as the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena), describing in harrowing detail his nightly attempts to cross the Channel. (Pfumojena also composed music for the production.)

The well-meaning Brits include Sam (Alex Lawther), an Eton student with grandiose plans to design a housing complex for the camp; Beth (Rachel Redford), who runs the school, despite being only 18 years old; and Paula (Jo McInnes), fiercely dedicated to protecting the children, personified by an adorable little girl (Vera Gurpinar and Annika Mehta alternate in the role) who figures prominently in the action.

Beginning with the funeral of a young boy killed on a nearby roadway, the play depicts daily life at the camp — communal meals, passionate debate amongst its leaders about how things should be run, Islamic prayers and joyful interludes of music and dance. What becomes abundantly clear is that, despite the significant hardships and the multiplicity of ethnicities involved, the Calais Jungle became a cohesive, vibrant community. The action takes place throughout the auditorium, surrounding many audience members, with the actors often performing on elevated plywood walkways.

The work packs a powerful punch in the current political era, giving a human face to the proliferating problem of displaced peoples around the globe. Video screens deliver news accounts and images of the crisis, including the horrific photo of the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body washed up on a Turkish shore.

The play's writing sometimes lacks cohesion and feels manipulative, making it not always as artful as the production. But The Jungle nonetheless registers with a throbbing authenticity only amplified by the superb performances of the large, multinational ensemble and the virtuosic immersive staging. The production was previously seen at London's Young Vic and in the West End; New York theatergoers are lucky to have it.

Venue: St. Ann's Warehouse, New York
Cast: Mohammad Amiri, Alexander Devrient, Elham Ehsas, Trevor Fox, Milan Ghobsheh, Ammar Haj Ahmad, Alex Lawther, Jo McInnes, Yasin Moradi, Jonathan Nyati, John Pfumojena, Rachel Redford, Dominic Rowan, Rachid Sabitri, Mohamed Sarrar, Martin Shamoonpour, Ben Turner, Bisserat Tseggai, Nahel Tzegai, Vera Gurpinar, Annika Mehta
Playwrights: Joe Murphy, Joe Robertson
Directors: Stephen Daldry, Justin Martin
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Catherine Kodicek
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: John Pfumojena
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Video designers: Tristan Shepherd, Duncan McLean
Production: Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre, Young Vic
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse