As made plain by “The Jungle,” which had its official opening Sunday at St. Ann’s Warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, refugees are people, too — with personal histories and aspirations and families and a right to safety. How horribly sad is it that a statement like this would have to be typed out, in the caravan-demonizing America of 2018?
The large-cast drama by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, first staged at London’s Young Vic Theatre, places the audience smack dab in the middle of the camp, a pulsating multinational assemblage of escapees from the violence and other horrors in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Palestinian territories and Iran. Directors Justin Martin and Stephen Daldry — the latter represented at the moment at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company by his remount of “An Inspector Calls” — arrange spectators’ tables and benches in a makeshift-seeming maze, in which we’re made to feel the transitory lives of those in migratory limbo.
We sit at the feet of the camp denizens and a small cadre of British do-gooders of various temperaments, trying to order daily life in the “Jungle” and assist with efforts to get the refugees across the English Channel to the United Kingdom. (The camp nickname comes from a Pashto word.) Your ticket assigns you to a camp sector by nationality; mine was Sudan. It’s a device that helps to underline the ethnic divisions and tensions that arise under squalid circumstances. In conditions of constant peril, it seems, it’s not such a small world after all.
To be sure, the 2 hour 45 minute production has its excesses, namely, an unfortunate shifting from showing us what life is like for displaced people in extremis, to telling us a bit too instructively what has already become apparent about the dire straits we’re witnessing. “The Jungle” is least effective when it is seeking to indict with a Brechtian inflexibility: The French authorities who watch over the camp from a distance, for instance, are portrayed as unrelievedly cruel, duplicitous and even wantonly brutal.
It is easy, though, to understand the assertion woven through “The Jungle” by, among others, Syrian refugee Safi, played by Ammar Haj Ahmad, that the European powers that colonized much of the world share responsibility for the refugees’ plight. And while events in Calais may seem a bit more remote to Americans than, say, those in Mexico, an audience here can readily feel empathy for those seeking to escape places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The drama’s success in imbuing with personality those trapped in the camp, many of whom arrived after arduous escapes by boat and on foot from thousands of miles away, may be its most important achievement. No weak link exists in the 18-member ensemble, and some actors offer particularly vivid accounts, among them, John Pfumojena as somber Okot, a Sudanese teenager who has witnessed atrocity; Ben Turner in the pivotal role of Salar, the hardheaded operator of a camp restaurant; Mohammad Amiri as Norullah, a high-energy young Afghan refugee, and Rachel Redford, portraying a British woman, Beth, who has left the comforts of her life behind to work in the camp.
“The Jungle” may be agitprop, and its natural constituency may not need to be convinced of the urgency of the need its characters evince for rescue. But the accomplishment here, of amplifying the voices that dark forces in the world seek to mute, is one that is surely worth honoring.
The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $36-$76. Through Jan. 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn. Stannswarehouse.org or 718-254-8779.