More than a year since police swept through the squalid camp near the port of Calais, clearing out an estimated 7,000 migrants, the ordeal is captured vividly in “The Jungle” playing to sell-out crowds at the Young Vic theater.
The play is the creation of two writers who set up their own theater amid the chaos in Calais, with casts including migrant actors.
“We ended up wanting to chart the creation of that society and then the destruction, or downfall, of that society,” playwright Joe Murphy told AFP.
Murphy and fellow writer Joe Robertson, both 27, set up the Good Chance Theatre in September 2015 at the heart of the Jungle, their actors performing under a second-hand geodesic dome tent.
Three of the migrants who acted in Calais are now performing in “The Jungle,” which lays bare the precarious and dangerous times faced by those searching desperately for a passage to Britain.
Episodes in which characters race off to try their luck — seeking their “good chance” in Jungle lingo — on the roads toward the port bring tears to patrons’ eyes.
A total of 33 migrants died in the Calais area in 2015 and 2016, mostly being hit by vehicles as they tried to climb into lorries, or by trains about to pass through the Channel Tunnel.
The camp was widely seen as a result of a controversial 2003 accord that effectively moved Britain’s border with France to the French side of the Channel, creating a magnet for migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The play’s scenes of despair are punctuated by music and laughter, as different nationalities try to live together and naive British volunteers turn up with breakfast cereal and good intentions.
“We have tried to be as honest as possible about the role we played and the role that the volunteers played in Calais,” Robertson said.
“We’ve tried to be really critical at times of the impact individuals have when they try and help.”
The play’s narrator is Ammar Hajj Ahmad, himself a refugee from Syria, who did not pass through Calais and sees his role as creating empathy.
“It’s my task to invite people to strip with me, to really be vulnerable, whether we cry or we don’t cry, to look people in the eye and say, ‘now you know’,” he said.
The desire to understand what happened across the Channel is a main draw of the show, which closes on Tuesday, before the playwrights move on to their next project.
Later this month Good Chance Paris will open in the northern Porte de la Chapelle area, bringing the dome tent used in Calais to the French capital.
“We will be a theater that welcomes people of all backgrounds, who’ve been in the city and were born there and lived there all their lives, and those that arrived there the day before,” Murphy said.
Under the stewardship of Good Chance’s French executive producer Claire Bejanin and in collaboration with the charity Emmaus Solidarite, the creative arts space will have an initial 10-week run.
Murphy said he wanted to bring together people from a wide political spectrum — “people who are very skeptical, or angry, or scared, or feel very strongly about the issue.”
Although the Calais camp has long since closed, its legacy is expected to last, and the playwrights plan to take their theater to Athens, whose government continues to grapple with a relentless migrant crisis.
For Murphy, art is the ideal means to stimulate dialogue between sometimes very different groups of people.
“Art is disarming, it’s generous, it’s gentle, but it’s kind of dangerously explorative at the same time. And that’s the context and the theater that we want to create.”