Robertson and Murphy, compelled by an idea of the value art could bring to the Jungle, went home, crowdfunded for provisions, and returned in September to set up Good Chance Theatre, a performance and community space. The name is derived from camp slang—“good chance” is how migrants described successfully making their way into Britain, versus “no chance” for failed attempts. As an organization, Good Chance aimed to facilitate expression and dignity for the residents of the Jungle, running performance workshops and encouraging migrants to bring their own artistic traditions to the space. Robertson and Murphy ended up living in the Jungle for seven months, and their time there led to a different, complicated understanding of the refugee crisis. The Jungle, a play currently running at London’s Young Vic in a production directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Crown) and Justin Martin is an attempt to provide a more accurate narrative of what the place was like.
As a play, The Jungle is a remarkable achievement, immersing audiences in the confusion and chaos of a makeshift city where thousands of migrants of different nationalities are living on top of each other. But as a work of testimony it’s even more accomplished, challenging the assumptions of liberal and conservative audience members alike. “It’s not a play that sits on the side of a progressive, tolerant idea,” Robertson said. “It also questions motivations, questions why people try and help.” Above all, it humanizes migrants who’ve so often been distilled down to a homogenous mass: a collective blight on French policies and British consciences. Intrinsic to The Jungle is the idea that art can enable a more productive, more empathetic, more truthful understanding of who refugees are, and why they want what they want.
The play opens in February 2016, during an emergency meeting to discuss French efforts to raze the camp. A British volunteer, Paula (Jo McInnes), is conducting a makeshift census to try and persuade French authorities to leave it in place, and the roll call acts as an introduction to the Jungle’s different communities. In Miriam Buether’s set, the audience sits not in sections but in “countries,” divided into the camp’s various factions: Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Kurdistan. Benches have been set up near a cafe run by Salar (Ben Turner), a de facto leader of the Jungle’s Afghan community. The action takes place on a stage in the middle of the room, but also behind, around, and on top of the audience. Seats are set atop sand and mulch; when French police raid the camp, the smoke that fills the theater is thick and choking.
The play then goes back in time to March 2015, the earliest days of the Jungle, whose name was originally “zhangal,” a Pashto word for “forest.” Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), a Syrian refugee and former student of English literature, is the audience’s guide. While migrants move into the new area of land allotted to them by the French government (“In its great wisdom, France made Zhangal only a short walk to the ferry port,” Safi says wryly), they decide how to occupy it, dividing it into distinct “nations,” with different places of worship, and different unofficial representatives. “No more fighting,” Salar says to a Sudanese teenager and an Afghan teenager who’ve been scuffling. “We are hated by enough people. We do not hate each other.”