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A CurtainUp Review
The Jungle

. . . it takes pain to live side by side. If you are born in the same country as another person this is true. If you are born in a different country" a different continent" even more. Some people tell you living together is easy but you mustn't trust them. — Safi Al-Hussain" Syrian refugee and activist in the Calais community of The Jungle
Vera Gurpinar as Little Amal" Ben Turner as restauranteur Salar" and Mohammad Amiri as Nourullah. (photo: Teddy Wolff)
In northern France, Britain-bound refugees call the final dash"from Calais to Dover, their "good chance." The Jungle by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson (both in their late twenties) envelopes its audience in a facsimile encampment of good-chance seekers from politically turbulent nations in Africa and the Middle East. This 18-actor drama lends epic sweep to events that took place in 2016 on the French side of the English Channel.

At that time,refugees were pouring into Europe in far greater numbers than is the case today. Then, as now, Calais was the final way-station for migrants heading for the United Kingdom" where laws tend to be more favorable for refugees than elsewhere in Europe. As explained by Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmed), a Syrian refugee who narrates parts of the The Jungle: the community of migrants at Calais was initially called "Zhangal" a Pashto term meaning "forest." But the advent of "more people means more problems, so the camp's name morphed into the English word "jungle," reflecting the inevitable tumult of the place.

The Jungle, which sprang up without the planning or administrative support of United Nations refugee camps, was situated between the Calais ferry port and the entrance to the tunnel that runs beneath the English Channel. Miriam Buether, who designed arresting stage sets for recent Broadway productions of Three Tall Women and A Doll’s House, Part 2, has transformed St. Ann,s into a replica of a cafe that existed in the encampment. This makeshift cafe — run by a vinegary Afghan refugee named Salar (Ben Turner) — is representative of the catch-as-catch-can commerce and roistering, multicultural life in the transient community which Safi characterizes as an amalgam of "mosques, churches, shops, and people from many countries living together."

During 2016, the year in which The Jungle takes place, Murphy and Robertson — co-founders of Good Chance Theatre, co-producer of The Jungle with the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Young Vic — were in Calais, presenting plays in a tent at the refugee camp. They knew the residents" observed the camp's self-government, and witnessed the events which they've dramatized. Their play has the feel of a living documentary and the urgency of a newscast. Under the high velocity co-direction of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, the script is engrossing" though it shows signs of authorial haste. This is a fevered report from a combat zone" rather than well-honed dramatic writing; and it calls to mind examples of rough-and-ready agitprop such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage.

The actors are varied in ethnicity and national origin. They portray a cross-section of types associated with the encampment — refugees, humanitarians, relief workers, clergy, intellectuals, smugglers, journalists, and law enforcement officials. The script dramatizes myriad conflicts: between diverse individuals living in proximity; among citizens of The Jungle and their leaders; between asylum-seekers and grifters who prey on them. The play is set at a moment when governmental authorities were threatening to evict the camp's self-governing residents. Consequently, the primary conflict is between the refugee community as a whole and the inhospitable French authorities.

For some refugees, attempting to cross the Channel is like a contest. "We are young men. Strong" brave," explains Safi. "We climb fences, jump lorries, escape police. And . . . the game is fun." For others — especially the most vulnerable and unworldly, such as three-year-old Little Amal (played alternately by Vera Gurpinar and Annika Mehta) and adolescent Norullah (Mohammad Amiri) — there's no gamesmanship in the refugee existence, only peril.

A drama as ambitious as The Jungle is bound to feature some characters more fully developed than others. In this instance, the Britishers are problematic — they're stereotypical do-gooders from various levels of the English class system. In Salar's view, "they go to places they don't belong and tell people what to do." Whether or not that view is justified, these characters reflect something akin to contempt on Murphy and Robertson's part for the fellow countrymen they met in Calais.

The Brits include Derek (Dominick Rowan),an optimistic community organizer; Sam (Alex Lawther), an upper-crust twit just out of Eton; Beth (Rachel Redford), a maternal suburbanite who's bent on founding a school (Rachel Redford); Boxer (Trevor Fox), an alcoholic Geordie with a heart of gold; and Paula (Jo McInnes), the children's advocate seeking real-world experience in lieu of an expensive university education. The superb actors in these roles manage to add meat to the bare bones the playwrights have given them. With the aid of Daldry and Martin's expert direction, they demonstrate how performers with insight and technique can salvage sketchily drawn figures from the jaws of vapidity.

The authors of The Jungle delivered this chronicle of a real-life pop-up community and its principled residents to UK audiences remarkably soon after the French government's bulldozers rendered those residents homeless. Two years later in New York, their engrossing depiction of what Safi calls the pain of "living side by side" speaks powerfully to the way the Trump government is handling refugees languishing at United States borders and held in federal custody. That's the polyvalent nature of dramatic art.

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The Jungle
Written by Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin.
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, Ben Turner, Nahel Tzegai, Vera Gurpinar and Annika Mehta.
Set design by Miriam Buether
Costume design by Catherine Kodicek
Lighting design by Jon Clark
Sound design by Paul Arditti
Composition by John Pfumojena
Video design by Tristan Shepherd and Duncan Mclean
Stage Manager: Georgia Bird18.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes" including 1 intrmission.
St. Ann's Warehouse" 45 Water Street" Brooklyn
From 12/04/18; opening 12/09/18; closing 1/27/19.
Due to mature content" recommended for ages 12+
Reviewed by Charles Wright December 23rd evening performance.

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