St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, has been recast as a crowded and vibrant refugee camp called the Calais Jungle on the coast of France. The theater’s ticket booth is in a ramshackle hut, its bar relocated to a dome of canvas and metal. The audience doesn’t so much sit as huddle, as if around a campfire.
The Jungle is booked through January 2019, after an acclaimed West End stint. It depicts the day-to-day existence of Middle Eastern migrants living on a landfill just across the Channel from England in 2015-16 while awaiting asylum and enduring the threat of eviction by the French police.
Scenic designer Miriam Buether has transformed St. Ann’s into a to-scale replica of part of the camp. The audience is seated in a dirt-floored recreation of the camp’s Afghan Flag Restaurant, run by Salar (the excellent Ben Turner), as actors walk among the audience and on criss-crossing tables.
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, Brits who ran a theater company in the Calais Jungle, the drama co-stars multiple real-life former denizens of the camp. They are charismatic actors and help elevate documentary theater into a spellbinding, haunting play.
Salar’s restaurant becomes the site of clashes among the camp’s ethnic groups and nationalities as a true community begins to rise in the Jungle over the course of two years (condensed into nearly three hours), with the help of sometimes-bumbling, well-meaning British volunteers. Day after day, hundreds of camp residents, some as young as fifteen, travel to the nearby freeway to try to hop trucks heading to Britain. (Many of the refugees speak English but no French, and have more faith in British asylum law than French.)
All along, the French state, represented by callous civil servant Henri (Alexander Devrient), prepares to clear out the camp, claiming it represents an incursion on the freeway. Eventually, the French start drawing lines around the camp; refugees can sleep, eat and build their houses here but not there. Salar, the restaurateur, won’t move.
“I have been moved, and moved, and moved, and moved,” he murmurs, almost like an incantation. “I can’t be moved again.”
As directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, The Jungle navigates this territory without condescension. Perhaps the seminal moment comes when Syrian migrant Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) asks, “Do you think we’d be here – ” in the camp – “if they knew?” By “they” he means the comfortable residents of the First World, who despite heated immigration debates remain largely oblivious to the crisis at their doorstep.