There’s something unshakably intimate about “The Jungle” that, now some days later after witnessing the spectacle firsthand (floor-side), has profoundly changed how I look at the theater. Or, rather: it set a new, nose-bleedingly-high bar for future plays I attend.
At first glance—and step—into the Curran, where “The Jungle” is currently playing till the 19th, you’re immediately drawn into a timely narrative. The balcony, once fitted with tall columns and clinically clean seating arrangements, smells of airborne sawdust; styrofoam takeout containers populate the dirt floor in entropic fashions. A narrow, long catwalk, not unlike iterations strutted on in high-brow fashion shows, brings the audience within beer-spilling distance of the on-stage acts. (And, yes: During my Friday evening sitting, a rightfully taken back play-patron did, in fact, find herself dampened by an enthusiastically slung Heineken.)
Dirtied shoes from the bare floor and backless bench chairs exist as physical proxies to the dystopianism of the modern-day refugee crisis. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to "The Jungle."
Set in the real-life camp that existed from 2015 to 2016, before it was bulldozed and burned, the laudable show subsists as a sliding glass window into the everyday happenings of a temporarily erected, fictional restaurant near Calais, France, populated with asylum-seekers from Sudan and Syria, to Iran and Eritrea. Salar (Ben Turner), the restauranteur and, as I saw it, the ringleader of the displaced clan, strives to make “Jungle-life” quasi-tolerable while, too, aiding to build a political argument to gain citizenship for The Jungle’s population—including his son, Norullah (Khaled Zahabi).
Just shy of three hours, the actors give a breathless performance that ebbs and flows between moments of stark vulnerability and self-introspection, and more brash encounters with either the elements themselves or the up-in-arms French authorities. The show also serves as a hypothetical example of whats logistics go behind building and upkeeping what is, essentially, an unrecognized sovereign statehood.
How many domiciles can we build in a day, which demographics have the first claim of them? Do international and domestic laws exist within these encampments? Curfews? Where do we bury the dead? What’s our emergency plan when the malicious French authorities come knocking... with tear gas in tow?
The small cast of actors and actresses may seem to pontificate too much at times—”Do you think we would be here if they knew?”—but the scripted dialogue always manages to land with a sure footing. That said, in a meme-able generation, such bouts level-headed and well-constructed syntax are a welcomed treat to the banality of digital scrollings; it all comes together like a well-woven tapestry, enveloping the audience with emotional pulls and heart-string harpings that are far from univocal. (A traversing to The Curran to see the show up-close-and-personal is, truly, a You had to be there! type of experience.)
But, at its core, “The Jungle” is an executed ode to the the mortal and morale questions we, be us naturalized citizens or in-limbo refugees, have a fight-or-flight reaction to throughout or lives. And no Oprah-like quote pushes that notion to a proverbial head more than a waxing from Boxer (Trevor Fox), the kind-hearted village alcoholic, while he’s going on about our political climate: “We’re all refugees, in some way. We’re all running from something.”
// “The Jungle” is co-written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson and on-stage directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, with seats still available ($35–$175) from now to the 19th; for more information on the play, showtimes, and the theatre itself, visitsfcurran.com; 445 Geary St., S.F. Feature photo courtesy of The Curran.