“It may be a bigger theatre, but it’s still our story”

Suzanne Frost

In 2015, two young playwrights packed a tent and headed to Calais to build a theatre in the migrant camp called the Jungle. After a resounding success at the Young Vic, the play they wrote about their experience may be one of the most anticipated West End tranfers of the year. We caught up with ‘the Joes’, as they are called these days, in the middle of a tech rehearsal just days before opening in a very different theatre.

London Calling: You went to Calais and lived in the Jungle yourselves, what made you decide to go there?
Joe Murphy/Joe Robertson: 2015 was the time when the migration crisis was everywhere, the photograph of the young Syrian boy Alan Kurdi was on the news and sparked a great response from volunteers in the UK and across Europe. We went out not really sure of what we could do or how we could help. Having read all the news and seeing the hysteria that surrounded this issue, for us it was about not understanding. A lot of the questions that we had - who were these people? where were they fleeing from? where will they be going? - weren’t being answered.
On our way to Europe, we got the ferry and found this extraordinary place, this makeshift city of about 8000 people at the time, 25 different nationalities and everyone trying to live together. There were shops and restaurants and churches and mosques, there were attempts to try and make this place liveable. We stayed with some Bedouin people from Kuwait who built a tent, cooked us food, played songs and we talked about our lives and told stories together. We realised that it was going to get very cold there, it was going to rain, winter was going to be harsh and wouldn’t a place where people can tell their stories in warmth and safety be a really good thing? And for us that is a theatre. So we went home and the next week came back with a geodesic dome tent and ended up staying for seven months.

The dome shaped Good Chance Theatre in Calais, 2015.

LC: The camp has been described as a terrifying, lawless, violent place by the media, the name the Jungle was a media creation as well.
JM/JR: It was originally derived from a Persian word ‘jangal’ which means a wooded area. Obviously a slightly different connotation to the word jungle, which is a place where animals live. That was indeed one of the catch phrases that people used living there: “A jungle is for animals not for humans.”
Our experience of it was slightly different to the portrayal in the media. It was obviously a very difficult place for anybody to live, but because of those difficulties, it was also a place where people had to find a way to live together, to find some sense of hope for the future. We felt the theatre that we built allowed people to have some hope and look forward rather than around them at the terrible conditions that they were living in. That’s what the play is about, how all these people from all these different places, for this short moment in time, in a place where no one wanted to be, made that courageous effort to try and live peacefully together. It was a place of many contradictions.

Cast of The Jungle at the Young Vic. Credit David Sandison.

LC: Theatre is often seen as a luxury, but it’s fascinating that after the basic needs of shelter, food and water, the next thing people need is a place to meet, talk and sing.
JM/JR: In our mind every town has to have a theatre, halfway between the church and the market place, which is where we put it!  And we didn’t make plays for people, they made plays for each other. Not just plays but music. There are so many great musical traditions from Afghan dance to Arabian rap, and the moment those different styles started to collide were really the most magical days in a theatre I’ve ever had. There was poetry and painting and puppetry, everything you can imagine. Often when we think about humanitarian crises, yes, you need food and shelter to survive but you also need a place to reflect, to understand what you are going through, to come together and that’s what a theatre is.
LC: When you wrote the play, did you draw directly from the people you’ve met?
JM/JR: The play is a fictionalised account of what our experience of the Jungle was. We met so many people with so many different stories and we wanted in this play to try and have as many perspectives as possible and capture as many of those contradictions as possible. Of course in a play you have to whittle down experiences and attribute them to characters, and that’s what we tried to do but we welcomed into the cast some of the brilliant performers we met in the Jungle who started bands or performed every night in the space.

John Pfumojena (Okot) in The Jungle at the Young Vic. Credit David Sanderson.

LC: The play has a make shift feel, which is an important part of its identity. How was it to transfer to a big West End theatre? How does it feel in that space?
JM/JR: That homemade feel is very important considering the fact that the Jungle was build by everybody. At the Young Vic, we were able to build a restaurant everybody from the audience was sat in. We are now in a traditional West End proscenium arch theatre and here we have - and this is exciting too - two very different experiences. In the stalls, we have recreated the restaurant setting, we’ve ripped out those seats in the stalls and you are in the middle of the action. And then we embraced the fact that we have a dress circle where you are looking into the space, almost voyeuristically, from afar, which in a sense simulates the experience that many of us in Britain had when we were watching this migration crisis through the news.
Cameras were so present in the jungle. You had journalists, filmmakers, anthropologists, everyone wanted to take pictures and record and we try to reflect that as well. We’ve got a number of roving cameras that are filming close up, and project to really big screens up on the balcony. We try to reveal more different perspectives through that upstairs area. You’re sitting in this beautiful West End theatre in London, you’re in an Afghan café, all make shift, and then there is this crack in the sky where the dress circle is and we called that the White Cliffs of Dover.

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson in rehearsal. Photo by Marc Brenner

LC: How has the play faired as the media emphasis has moved from the migrant crisis – very prominent in 2015 - to the next big thing?
JM/JR: The migration crisis manifests itself in different ways. It’s certainly one of the great challenges of our time, something that we are going to be seeing for many years to come. It’s a fact of globalisation that people will want to and have to move. There are still a thousand people in Calais. Many of those are unaccompanied children. We think it has calmed down but that’s a myth. There is a certain level of fatigue in reporting which is why it is really important for art across all forms to embrace the subjects that will define our current times.
So often we rely on journalism to be the source of what is happening in the world, but equally, it’s the responsibility of playwrights, of musicians, of comedians, to discuss these stories in their own particular ways, with their own strength and the humanity that comes from these art forms. That’s why we think it is so important that not only is there a play about the situation but that this play can sit in the heart of the West End, not only in a subsidised theatre but in a commercial theatre.

Trevor Fox (Boxer) in The Jungle at the Young Vic. Credit David Sandison.

LC: Did you ever imagine it would get this big?
JM/JR: The great thing is it still feels as small and as humble and familiar as it always has. Yes, it’s grown a bit but it’s still the same people, we are still coming together every day in a circle. It may be a bigger theatre, but a lot of our crew, all our directors and a lot of the production team were all out in Calais as well, it’s still all of our story.
LC: You are just reaching a bigger audience.
JM/JR: If we can expand that audience to people who would not traditionally come to see plays like this then that’s amazing. It is a subject that should be dealt with so seriously but also with joy and with music, there is so much dancing and singing in this play, it is a story of hope. Yes, despair but also hope.
And by the way, there is a big sign within the Jungle that says ‘London Calling’ so you’re in it!
The Jungle opened for previews at the Playhouse Theatre on 16 June and will run until 3 November.

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