The West Coast premiere of the immersive theater experience, “The Jungle” assaulted the April 4th opening night audience at San Francisco’s Curran with harsh lights, loud noise, beating drums, fits of anger, bouts of tears, physical violence, anguish, and despair. This is a profoundly heartbreaking manifestation of the lives of more than 10,000 refugees from various Middle Eastern and African countries, who found themselves trapped in 2015 outside of Calais, France in a refugee camp known as the Jungle. While in the Jungle, they are in limbo, growing more hopeless by the day of escape into the U.K and asylum there. The production is presented as graphically as possible, to help the audience feel what they felt.
The theater itself has been transformed. Award-winning scenic designer Miriam Buether turned the Curran’s traditional, posh orchestra seating into a smaller 600-seat series of tables and backless benches on a dirt floor, to represent the Jungle’s restaurant. Yes, the Jungle had an Afghan restaurant, as well as various makeshift churches and schools. The temporary residents built jury-rigged houses and tents and created a semblance of society.
The actors use as their stage, long, raised catwalks amid the tables, as well as the dirt floor of the theater, from which the citizens of the Jungle, and a few British humanitarian aid workers, reveal their lives and struggles, their harrowing journeys to get to Calais, and their dimming hopes for a brighter future.
The talent of the actors, some of whom were refugees in Calais, is astonishing and genuine. Of particular note is John Pfumojena, whose soliloquy about his flight from Darfur was astounding. The direction by three-time Oscar nominee and Tony winner, Stephen Daldry (Broadway’s “Skylight”) and Justin Martin (assistant director of Netflix’s “The Crown”) is extraordinary. The talented young writers and friends, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who spent seven months in the Jungle, brilliantly captures the humanity and inhumanity of life in the Jungle.
The story is told by an outwardly calm, but inwardly desperate 35-year-old Syrian, Safi (excellent Ammar Haj Ahmed), a former English literature student from Aleppo. We see the end of the story first, so we know that the vast majority of the Jungle’s inhabitants do not make it to the U.K, despite being able to see on a clear day the white cliffs of Dover.
This two and one-half hour production is challenging to experience at times, especially if one is seated on one of the backless benches. The Curran’s mezzanine is still equipped with regular seats, which, for better and worse, removes one physically and emotionally from the action.
So why see “The Jungle?” It will not be an evening of light entertainment, but it will astonish you at the ability of theater to influence and educate, as well as to open your mind and heart to the tragedy of refugees everywhere in the world. I left the theater saying a silent prayer of thanks to my grandparents who were refugees to the United States over one hundred years ago.
The Jungle was commissioned by the National Theatre and first presented at the Young Vic theatre on December 7, 2017, in a co-production by the National Theatre and the Young Vic with Good Chance Theatre.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved