If the past is a foreign country, then the galloping pace of change can render even the recent past a distant land. Cast your mind back to 2015, before the news was clogged up with fights over Brexit and outrage at Donald Trump’s latest burst of unpresidential behaviour.
Back then, our news was dominated by Europe in a different way – all those migrants trudging north through Greece and Italy, thousands of miles to Germany, some of them even reaching the dreary patch of mud outside Calais dubbed The Jungle.
Or not actually The Jungle, but zangall, a word in Pashtun meaning “forest”. But Brits, characteristically tone-deaf to language, misheard how its inhabitants were describing their temporary home and, in doing so, reduced it to a threatening place associated with wild beasts.
Yet this shanty town was organised into sections named Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Kurdistan, Sudan and so on, after the origins of their inhabitants. Dirt tracks were named after the British and French leaders on whom their hopes were pinned, David Cameron and François Hollande, and then-Home Secretary Theresa May (told you it felt like a long time ago).
And it is in an Afghan restaurant in the camp that Joe Murphy and Joe Roberston set their play The Jungle, a National Theatre commission directed by Stephen Daldry. Showing at London’s Playhouse Theatre following a sell-out run at the Young Vic last winter, performances continue until 3 November. Set designer Miriam Buether recreates the makeshift eatery by covering the stalls with hardboard and inviting audience members to sit among the cast.
The script is fiction, based on the writings of Jungle residents who took part in sessions run by the Good Chance Theatre, an initiative in the camp pioneered by Murphy and Robertson, who spent several months living there. We meet the proud restaurant owner Salar, who has lost two children to violence in Afghanistan; Safi, our narrator and a Syrian academic from Aleppo, and Okot the 17-year-old Darfuri who recounts his horrific journey to Calais and exclaims that “a refugee dies many times”. Then there is the eccentric group of Brits who take it upon themselves to try to help them, from Barbour-jacketed Sam, fresh out of Eton, to Boxer, the Georgie drunk who announces he is a refugee – on the run from his wife.
Its mix of real events is convincing and powerful. We see how the defining events of that autumn impact on the migrants’ lives. When the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Greek beach, hits the media, sympathy for Jungle residents rises. Three months later when IS-linked gunmen slaughter 130 civilians in Paris, it falls again: screens around the theatre show real footage of international news outlets speculating that the gunmen entered France as refugees in the exodus from Greece. Later that night, when a fire destroys numerous makeshift cabins, tensions are high as it emerges the damage is not the work of xenophobic French but of an inhabitant going to sleep with a candle lit.
Unexpected moments of light break into the characters’ desperate limbo: The Times’ late restaurant critic AA Gill visited in 2016 and praised the delights of the (actually Peshwari) restaurant. He quipped that while some people moaned that a theatre project in the Jungle was “a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension”, “If ever I find myself lost and penniless, I hope it’s the liberals with leaky valves and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare that find me, and not the sanguine, pity-tight realists.”
Murphy’s and Robertson’s play evokes the chaos and the moral ambivalence of the place – characters are volatile mixes of hope, anger, trauma, humour, solidarity. They are living in the Jungle’s squalor because they refuse to accept asylum in mainland Europe and are fixated on reaching Britain. The few women there complain that they have had to sleep in the Ethiopian Orthodox “church” because they were being harassed by men as they tried to sleep. The Kurdish trafficker is a necessary part of Safi’s mission to reach England. (He swears to Safi that part of his high fee goes to Erbil to fight IS.)
After two hours seeing the camp from within, I found myself willing Safi to make it undetected and unscathed; I longed for the oppressive French authorities – lobbing tear gas and bulldozing shacks – to leave these vulnerable people in peace.
At the time, I felt that the Jungle was an accusing finger pointing to Europe’s (well, France and Britain’s) unwelcoming shut door, but I acknowledged that compassion for war-scarred refugees could be turned into a roaring trade by wily traffickers. So I watched from the sidelines as others rushed to the mud and cold and helped. I found the moral ambiguity confusing – entering Britain hidden in a lorry is a criminal offence; crossing half of Europe before claiming asylum here is playing the system. Yet if it is a matter of playing fair, many of the residents could have argued that they had been badly failed at home, law and order being either deeply unjust or absent.
What stemmed the flow of migrants into northern Europe was the EU’s deal with Turkey, and Italy paying off several Libyan militias involved in people-smuggling. Big action by governments vastly reduced the flow of newcomers to the Jungle (which was razed in October 2016), not small actions by altruists. And yet the altruists can with clear conscience say that they did something. Two years on, northern France is still sheltering almost a thousand migrants, and populist movements against immigrants of many stripes are simmering in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. History will no doubt cast its judgement on our collective response to the Jungle and what it should have taught us by now. I wonder what clarity hindsight will bring.
Above: Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi. Photo: Marc Brenner