sat 21/07/2018

The Jungle, Playhouse Theatre review - new territory | reviews, news & interviews

The Jungle, Playhouse Theatre review - new territory

The Jungle, Playhouse Theatre review - new territory

How many deaths would you survive for a second chance?

From left: Ben Turner as Salar, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Dominic Rowan as Derek, and Alex Lawther as SamImages: Marc Brenner

"I am dead," declares Okot before recounting the horrors he survived to reach Calais. Each time, he says, "I died." How many times can you die before you are truly dead? What is it that finally kills you? These are the questions at the heart of Good Chance’s dramatisation of the lives of the inhabitants of Calais’s Jungle which has transferred to the Playhouse Theatre following its critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Young Vic over the winter.

It’s a feat of a transfer which has transformed West End plush and gilt into chipboard and oilcloth. Proscenium and stage have been swallowed by tarpaulin and textile offcuts, and a dirt-covered false floor brings stalls up to stage level  apt for a piece in which performers weave between audience and everyone present is somehow implicated.

The action opens with the ending  the demolition of the Jungle (originally Zhangal, Kurdish for forest)  meaning the play is not so much about what happens as how we get there. Through the weaving together of characters’ stories  by turns exuberant, absurd and tragic  we become acquainted with the prejudices and rivalries that crisscross the camp divided according to country of origin, and how solidarity between different encampments of refugees develops through necessity and over time.

John Pfumojena as Okot © Marc BrennerDifferent national contingents compete for space, recognition and provisions. Each faction has its own spokesperson, and informal respect turns into recognised authority as the camp naturally builds its own system of governance. When the mercurial Salar (played with whip-quick see-saws of welcome and suspicion by Ben Turner) who runs the popular Afghan restaurant protests “I am not an elder!”, Mohammed (played with dry poise by Jonathan Nyati), an academic from Khartoum who heads up Sudan’s quarter with easy authority counters, “But you are respected.”

This organic growth from mutual wariness to heartfelt respect is given rambunctious life through their young charges Norullah (Mohammad Amiri, pictured below, centre) and Okot (John Pfumonjena, pictured above right) who segue from initial scorn to inseparable brothers, situating friendship as a key kind of binding agent in this fraught environment. (On a side note, the French Constitutional Council today ruled that providing humanitarian assistance to those considered migrants is a right, rather than a crime as it had previously been.) Into the mêlée come a handful of Brit volunteers whose shared intention to assist in part sows havoc. Initially considered outsiders they too are eventually incorporated into its complex social ecosystem.

While the meat of the action takes place on the raised central catwalk, the drama is fully 360º. Auxiliary dramas perpetually fizz round the fringes of the main arena  you might catch Helene (Nahel Tzegai) pleading with Norullah for the phone stolen off Etonian Sam’s selfie stick (Alex Lawther plays Sam) so she can call her sister in London, or be spattered with beer by permanently sloshed geordie Boxer (Trevor Fox), or serenaded by Omid (Moein Ghobsheh). Perpetual tumult in an unstable, unpredictable environment is immersively conveyed, and intermittent episodes of singing, arguing and dancing combine with windows into the everyday rhythms of eating and praying and waiting for the next opportunity to cross to the UK.Elham Ehsas as Maz, Mohammad Amiri as Norullah, Rachel Redford as Beth © Marc BrennerBut it’s the quiet touches that convey the paradox of living in this limbo, this purgatory: for all its life, no one is quite alive. So when unaccompanied minor Amal (Alyssa de Souza) stuffs fistfuls of chocolate cake into her mouth, her greed appears to derive as much from childish glee as desperate hunger, and when Kurdish smuggler Ali (Rachid Sabitri) stubs out his cigarette in his palm, it’s as much a conscious means of intimidation as it is the dehumanised gesture of someone familiar with having to become immediately invisible.

Our Virgilian guide, Safi (Amman Haj Ahmad), declares that if he were cut open Calais would be written on his heart. It is not the summation of who he is but refugeehood has changed him. Certainly The Jungle is advocacy theatre  certain sections succumb to preachiness  but it’s a truly multi-faceted drama about the desperation that drives people to deaden their friendships, still their memories, cut off attachments and become temporary ghosts who pass through hell in order to live again.

Arriving in the UK or claiming asylum in itself does not breathe new life into these people’s lives  the scars of each person’s journey are borne in many ways, and the play’s continued urgency is that each must recover from the many deaths they have faced before they can begin to truly live again.

@_kwaters_

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