Late in the three-hour production of The Jungle (at the Curran through May 19), video images of Alan Kurdi from 2015 roll across four TV screens. They’re mounted in the corners of a transformed auditorium, in close proximity to the audience, so that no matter the angle you can see his three-year-old body lying face down on an empty beach. At that point, the controlled chaos of the play, an immersive experience by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, quiets down to an awful hush. Several people in the audience were brought to tears by this and many other scenes that they had witnessed on opening night.
By dramatizing the plight of the refugees who lived in the French camp — known as the Calais Jungle — the show’s creators restore the humanity to the news footage and the immediacy of the headlines that ran from 2015 to October 2016, when the camp closed. They tell individual stories of the immigrants who lived there, hailing from countries like Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan. Mingled among them is a group of British volunteers who’ve arrived on a road that’s paved, and fraught, with good intentions. While the balcony seats remain in place, picnic tables and chairs replace the regular seats on the main floor.
The ground is covered in mulch. A catwalk, in the shape of a cross, brings the action up close. The picnic tables, like the camp itself, are arranged by country and demarcated by flags. Walking through either side entrance to find your seat, you pass by a makeshift restaurant and a wall filled with supplies. Once you take your seat, the catwalk is at eye level. The audience is sitting in an extended version of an Afghani restaurant that Salar (Ben Turner) runs. He’s a natural leader and entrepreneur. Other people there, regardless of their nationality, turn to him for guidance. When a British food critic, the late A.A. Gill, favorably reviewed Salar’s restaurant, it offered a hopeful narrative in the face of several bleaker ones.
Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) is the de facto narrator of The Jungle. He provides background information for the other characters, facts about the camp and the arc of his own journey. Safi tells us that there were only two faucets of drinking water for a population that ranged from 3,000 up to nearly 10,000 people (the exact statistics vary). Norullah (Khaled Zahabi), a young friend of Safi’s, reminds us more than once that there was often nowhere to take a shit. While most of Safi’s acquaintances have suffered under a corrupt government or from the tragedy of a war, Okot’s (John Pfumojena) story is particularly resonant. When he recounts the reasons why he left his mother and his home behind, to end up confined inside the harrowing conditions of the camp, the playwrights summarily indict the empty rhetoric of European (and Western) liberalism.
The Brits represent the folly of applying that liberalism in a country that’s divided by racist attitudes. Safi informs us that when the November 2015 Paris attacks took place international press outlets initially, and erroneously, reported that residents from the Jungle were responsible for them. By the time Sam (Tommy Letts) announces his plans to build temporary housing, he’s fighting for a lost cause. Henri (Alexander Devrient), a villainous French bureaucrat, has already been strategizing the destruction of the camp. Paula (Lorraine Bruce) and Beth (Rachel Redford) do what they can for the children and for Okot but they’re working with limited resources. Neither the French nor the British government, both famously democratic nations, are unwilling to provide a steady stream of resources to help the immigrants.
There are some celebratory moments in which citizens from various cultures come together to eat and drink, to play music, to reminisce about the past and to help each other cope with living in the camp. Those brief moments posit a new world, one in which a shared catastrophe breaks down accepted social and tribal structures. Under very different circumstances, The Jungle suggests a post-dystopian utopia. Where the borders between countries no longer exist and where ample food and ready housing is available for what remains of the populace. When the bulldozers come to destroy the camp, displacing the already displaced, that vision of a harmonious future also gets buried and ground down to rubble and dust.
The Jungle, through May 19, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St. $25-$165; 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com