The Forest for the Trees: ‘The Jungle’ at The Curran


“I shall become a naturalized Englishman as soon as it is possible for my papers to go through. I cannot tell yet whether I shall make England my home.”
– Albert Einstein as he fled Nazi Germany, “Einstein in Refuge on English Coast”,
The New York Times (11 September 1933)

The first thing you notice as you take your seat in The Curran is how much it, well, isn’t The Curran. A low-hanging “roof” made of Middle Eastern quilt designs hangs above the mezzanine, where I was seated. This prohibits all access to the upper levels and balconies. The new roof extends from the rear of the mezzanine to what would usually be the front or middle of the orchestra row, where a crude wall is constructed with only curtains for doors. The stage-right and -left walls are the same. The ground is covered in dirt. The orchestra seats are replaced with stools and catwalk-like tables.

It’s cramped is what I’m saying. My seat was as far up as this show’s design allowed, yet I still felt a lack of wiggle room amongst the actors and audience below. But this place isn’t meant to be comfortable. It isn’t even meant to exist, not for long anyway. This is a refugee camp in Calais, France. The new occupants from the primarily-Muslim countries of Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and so forth (though there’s a notable Christian population as well). This place is meant to simply be a stop on their way to the UK as they flee the dangers of groups like the Daesh and the Taliban. As each “country” picks its spot in the camp, they name their urban wildland “Dzangal”, the Pashto word for “forest” or “woods”. A British relief worker mispronounces the name as “jungle”.

And that’s how we’re thrown into the fascinating, terrifying, and all-too-cramped world of the former real-life French refugee camp from which this production takes its name. It’s March 2015, and the 8,000 people here just want a chance to live.

Safi from Syria (Ammar Haj Ahmad) serves as our guide through The Jungle. As the only French-speaking refugee, he’s the camp’s point-of-contact with authorities, and has a few connections to smugglers. He introduces us to Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati), representing the Sudanese area of the camp; Salar (Ben Turner), an Afghani cook with an ingrained distrust of Westerners; Helene (Nahel Tzegai), the only woman recognized as a representative; and Little Amal (played this night by Arya Rose Lohmor), a girl who never says a word, but whose presence speaks volumes.

Joining them are the well-meaning members of a British non-profit led by the kind-hearted Beth (Rachel Redford), the straightforward Derek (Dominic Rowan), rich boy Sam (Tommy Letts), no-bullshit Paula (Lorraine Bruce), the salty old Boxer (Trevor Fox). They do their best to provide adequate services and facilities to the refugees, but bureaucracy is a bitch. Some of them just wind up doing more harm than good.

Ultimately, The Jungle is a story about how human necessity is given secondary priority to first-world complacency. It’s told from the point-of-view of people who are constantly being told that they should be happy they even have a roof over their head. With the possibility of sanctuary in the UK moving further and further away, where could these people possibly go if the French authorities evict them? Which is the very terror we witness in the show’s in media res opening.

Even the Brits’ aid tends to reek of “White Man’s Burden” guilt, no matter how sincere most of them appear to be. The fact that the “posh” Sam mishears the camp’s name as “The Jungle” – thus suggesting a dangerous wilderness – without seeing the problem is microcosmic of the government officials that merely consider refugees a burden (this won’t be Sam’s only misstep in the play). Even when Beth rescues young Okot (John Pfumojena) from a French jail, he – in one of the play’s most gripping scenes – later chastises her for dehumanizing him and the other refugees as merely victims needing saving.

Yet, there’s a great deal of joy to be found in Salar’s restaurant, where we find ourselves throughout the show. Beth’s English lessons with the younger refugees are made fun by them putting a comedic spin on being smuggled out of the country. Salar keeps a four-star review of his ad hoc restaurant from a British food critic (“I got five on TripAdvisor,” Salar quips). And the play’s most thrilling sequence is in the first act: once everyone has settled into their new lives, they celebrate. They play music – with pots and pans, when nothing else is available – they dance, and they sing. We, the audience, are encouraged the clap along, which doesn’t take a great deal of convincing.

The best part of all this is that the play (written by Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson under the direction of Justin Martin and award-winner Stephen Daldry) never loses sight of the fact that these are all living, breathing people. Every one of them capable of joy, rage, and idiosyncrasy. Even our narrator Safi finds himself in a morally dubious in the way he compromises his integrity with a smuggler acquaintance and one of Sam’s French contacts. Several of the refugees resort to criminal acts. And the Brits find their faith in their mission waning the longer they stay.

These are all people pushed to extremes, and while they can appreciate the joy of celebrating a birthday, the image of a dead refugee boy’s body on the beach is always on their minds.

Since it would take me WAY too long to go over the great performances in the show, I’ll go back to Miriam Buether’s fantastic set design. In addition to the aforementioned interiors, there are also tiny details – graffiti on the outside of the walls, fully-stocked spice racks, ketchup bottles on every table – that one only briefly notices, but sees better in the attached photos. It’s a credit to the work of both Buether and her team (no prop designer is credited). The set also includes a few video screens, showing both action otherwise out the mezzanine’s view, as well as footage like the aforementioned dead child on the beach. These videos are courtesy of designers Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepard. Jon Clark’s lights and Paul Arditti’s sounds are especially terrifying in scenes when the French police raid the camp.

Great work all around. In fact, the only real complaint I have is that the show is a bit too long. Safi’s final exposition goes on longer than it should, coupled with video of an actual British worker at the remnants of the real Jungle. It’s good material and I can see how making it a curtain speech would have broken the verisimilitude, but both it and Safi’s extended explanations of the fate the campers just begins to eat up minutes on the clock.

None of that changes the fact that The Jungle is a fantastic production about people of color given nothing less than a death sentence by an unfeeling White world. Given how that very world is currently trying to untangle the messes of Brexit and Donald Trump’s “presidency” – both brought into existence by anti-immigrant xenophobia – it gives a voice to the very sort of people we’ve seen targeted bigots the world over. During Safi’s final soliloquy, he says that once he gets a new home, all of us will be invited.

If you can’t make it then, at least enjoy (and learn from) the time you spend with him now.

GRADE:                                                      A-

The Jungle is scheduled to run until the 19th of May at The Curran Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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