“Immersive” hardly begins to describe the experience awaiting playgoers attending The Jungle, an electrifying drama that combines unique staging, superb directing, and stellar performances into an unforgettable theatrical coup. The play is inspired by real circumstances and its cast includes immigrant actors who endured the kinds of forced dislocation this astonishing production depicts.
The Jungle was the name of a notoriously bleak refugee and immigrant camp near Calais, France, that existed from January 2015 to October 2016. Migrants from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Eritrea, and other embattled nations streamed there, poised to find their way across the English Channel to the UK, which seemed to promise a better life than did France. By dint of imagination, creativity, and sheer human need, the migrants established a vibrant community in this rugged environment, opening shops, restaurants, hairdressers, schools, and places of worship.
British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson added a theater to the camp. They named it Good Chance — Jungle slang for the odds of stowing away on a truck or the Eurostar train headed to Britain.
Murphy and Robertson distilled what they learned of migrants’ experiences into The Jungle, a nearly three-hour account of how diverse, dislocated people navigated through hope and despair atop a former landfill in chilly northern France. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, the play premiered in London in 2017, originally a Good Chance, National Theatre, and Young Vic co-production. The following year it was produced at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York and was reprised there in 2023. The Washington production comes straight from St. Ann’s and is presented jointly by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
You don’t have to wait for a curtain to rise before finding yourself in the Calais migrant camp. Set designer Miriam Buether plunges playgoers directly into the show from the get-go. Your tickets point you to Sudan, Eritrea, Kuwait, or other sections of the camp in a totally transformed Harman Hall. Take a seat on the floor, a wooden bench, or a flea market chair adorned with floppy vintage cushions. Runways take the place of a stage. If you are seated next to one of them, don’t lean on the narrow boardwalks or you may become part of the show. The wonderfully athletic actors never stop moving.
The runways thrum with youthful vigor as the migrants (mostly male and some as young as 15) alternately flare with tense suspicion and embrace each other as brothers. Safi, a Syrian wonderfully played by Ammar Haj Ahmad, invites us to witness both the chaos and the emerging sense of community. The elegant Salar (Ben Turner), an Afghan restaurateur, makes exquisite meals out of scarce resources. Each character has a story to tell, but it is the teenager Okot (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) who stops the show with the tale of his escape from Sudan. When he’s asked how he possibly survived, the hideously scarred young man simply says, “We didn’t.” No one reaches the camp without having been irrevocably changed.
A small army of do-gooding Brits forces us to consider the role of immigrant aid organizations in the life of the camp. Are they simply assuaging their white guilt or do they have a legitimate role to play? Each of the volunteers claims to be a refugee as well — escaping some life circumstance on the other side of the Channel. The drunken, wry Boxer (Pearce Quigley) takes an unaccompanied young girl under his wing, swearing that he’ll make up for his bad parenting earlier in life. The no-nonsense Paula, played with gusto by Julie Hesmondhalgh, is disgusted with her government for not making enough space for migrants. Nonetheless, their woes pale in comparison with the displaced people they try to help.
Sound designer Paul Arditti creates a masterful aural landscape. Overlapping dialogue at first overwhelms us with a jumble of multiple languages. The beating of feet up and down the runways is urgent and loud. The Christian Eritrean women’s high-pitched ululation punctures the room with ineffable grief. The rumble of UK-bound truck traffic teases the migrants with fear and hope. Yet the occasional silent moments in this play are so profound that they also register as deafening walls of sound.
Jon Clark’s lighting design enhances the many moods of the play from the greenish fluorescence associated with unfriendly institutions to the warmth of fellowship. Catherine Kodicek’s costume design includes thread-bare traditional garb from the countries the Jungle residents left behind. They are shreds of identity that may not survive the passage of place and time.
After its brief, precarious existence, the Calais camp was brutally bulldozed and its inhabitants were dispersed throughout France. Just a few made it to the UK. But without a clear path to citizenship, migrants there remained in limbo just as millions do in America. The encampment was not an isolated phenomenon but rather a bellwether of even bigger migrations. As huge numbers of people are forced out of their homelands by political oppression or climate change, notions of identity and community will continue to challenge all of us. The Jungle, with unerring artistry, allows us to celebrate the resilience of humanity without losing sight of the immense forces poised to crush it.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
THE REMAINDER OF THE RUN OF THE JUNGLE IS SOLD OUT.
The Jungle plays through April 16, 2023, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($39–$170) may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 202-547-1122. Special discounts are available for members of the military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information.
The Asides+ program for The Jungle, including complete cast and creative credits, is online here.
COVID Safety: All performances of The Jungle are MASK RECOMMENDED. Detailed Safety and Health information is here.