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IV. Penser et Représenter l’événement contemporain : un théâtre d’histoire immédiate

Refugee Theater and Its Transgressions: Acts of Suspension in Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle

Le théâtre de réfugiés et ses transgressions : La scène en suspens dans The Jungle de Joe Murphy et Joe Robertson
Anna Street


Après un compte rendu rapide des principaux défis auxquels est confrontée la représentation théâtrale des immigrés, cet article propose une analyse de la pièce The Jungle de Joe Murphy et Joe Robertson, œuvre qui s’efforce de recréer un restaurant ayant existé dans le camp de réfugiés du même nom à Calais. Il interroge la manière dont la représentation théâtrale peut mettre en scène son propre désaveu tout en conservant sa portée urgente. En se concentrant sur l’accumulation d'obstacles à surmonter tant dans l'utilisation du théâtre au sein des camps de réfugiés que sur les scènes des grands théâtres, cette approche met en lumière l'extraordinaire double contrainte du théâtre dans ces contextes, en proposant une analyse de The Jungle qui souligne la capacité transgressive du théâtre à mettre en scène son propre renoncement, libérant ainsi la représentation de ses limites intrinsèques.

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1Although arguably not with the same degree of intensity or frequency as in other countries, British theater has interacted with history and politics over the last couple of decades by addressing what is often referred to as the refugee crisis. From community drama workshops to refugee festivals to grand-scale productions, theater companies and playwrights have used a variety of theatrical tools in attempting to sway public opinion towards welcoming refugees and migrants. Studies such as Alison Jeffers’ Refugees, Theatre and Crisis: Performing Global Identities (2012) and Emma Cox’s Theatre & Migration (2014) as well as S.E. Wilmer’s Performing Statelessness in Europe (2018), provide rich comparative perspectives on how various productions across Europe have approached the difficulties inherent to crossing stagecraft with statelessness, while Victoria Sams’ Immigration and Contemporary British Theatre: Finding a Home on the Stage (2014) shows how British theater finds itself confronted with a long history of anti-immigration prejudice that is particularly strong in Britain. Doubtless not unrelated to the unsettling ethical dilemmas raised by immigrant theater, innovative techniques have begun characterizing this new genre, from immersive and participatory practices to multilingual scripts and the verbatim use of legal transcripts. We will first take a summary look at the principal challenges faced by theatrical representations of the immigrant’s plight, considering the primary stakes as well as impasses that emerge when theater attempts to present or represent the refugee. Then we will explore how Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson’s play The Jungle (2018) navigates these obstacles, while remaining particularly mindful of the impossible bind faced by theater makers who attend to the illegal movements of bodies across borders.

2Although theater has been wrought with ethical transgressions from its inception, the plight of the paperless exacerbates and amplifies theater’s liminality around three primary dilemmas: 1. speaking on behalf of the other; 2. aestheticizing trauma; and 3. reinforcing oppositions. We will take a quick look at how these age-old obstacles are each endowed with particular complexity in the case of refugee theater before moving on to take a closer look at Murphy and Robinson’s play. While theatrical representation has always engaged with the liminal and the borderline, instances of refugee theater such as The Jungle can be understood as raising the stakes while operating a reflexive movement of liberating self-transgression.

Speaking on behalf of the other

3To give voice to the refugee, theatrical modes of representation must be predicated on a principle of radical inclusiveness that actively seeks to embrace the invisible and voiceless foreigner. At the same time, this gesture is a near impossible one to make if one is on the side of the norm, the law, or the rule. Such attempts at embracing the other often falter as veiled forms of colonialism in which the exception is normalized or conventionalized in a way that deprives the other of her irreducible singularity. In addition, to be an alien, an illegal, constrained to live in the shadows, always fearful of being exposed, found out, and expelled does not make one a particularly apt candidate for public performances. Add to that the linguistic fracturing and cultural gaps inherent to the paperless status, and one could conclude that the theater might not be the most obvious avenue for mobilizing immigrants. In the words of legal anthropologist Susan Coutin from her book Legalizing Moves, to be an immigrant is already to perform “the art of not existing” (cited in Guterman 2014, 5). Drawing on Coutin’s remarks as a preface for his study entitled Performance, Identity, and Immigration: A Theatre of Undocumentedness, Guterman tackles these very questions, asking, “How might performance make present for audiences a condition predicated on non-presence?” (ibid. 4). For if “fear fuels the need to erase oneself” (ibid), then leaving the shadows as an undocumented immigrant and exposing oneself to the stage gives a new meaning to the phrase “coming out” (ibid. 8).

  • 1 And even here, more hurdles must be faced. The very fact of skillfully presenting one’s story may r (...)

4Moreover, considerable pressure is placed on the refugee to assimilate to the cultural norms of their host nation, meaning that even if they are given the right to speak, their speech is expected to reflect a newly-constructed identity. This new identity is often dictated by the well-established roles that refugees are expected to play in relation to their victimized past and supposedly promising future. And as Anna Gotlib warns in “I Am Not Your Canvas,” “Even the nonxenophobic, well-meaning master narratives—the ones designed to inspire empathy for the downtrodden refugee, casting a kindly eye on the homeless migrant—can be both morally and epistemically damaging to the refugee and self-complimentary to the narrators” (243). She concludes that by giving voice to these master narratives, we “not only silence but also create spaces of liminality where refugees are unable to engage as moral agents” (Gotlib 2019, 248). Between the choice to stay hidden or to speak at considerable risk while constrained to adopt a prefabricated discourse, refugees have precious little space in which to portray themselves in their own manner. After crossing numerous borders, refugees find themselves with basically no margin in which to maneuver, even if they find their way to the stage.1

Aestheticizing trauma

5While the aestheticization of trauma, violence, or suffering is by no means unique to the theatrical representation of refugees, in the case of asylum seekers, the performance of victimhood is part and parcel of the very requisites for survival. In order for the speech act of “I claim asylum” to be rendered felicitous by a judge so that the applicant can avoid deportation, he or she must persuasively perform their story of persecution and trauma. Thus the fate and by consequence, identity of a refugee depends upon carefully and convincingly presenting their stories of fear, shame, and degradation. Transferring such performances to the stage encourages civilian audiences to also play the role of judge and jury, according their approbation to those supplicants whose retelling is deemed sufficiently compelling. Authentic identity as a refugee therefore becomes inextricable from the aestheticization of violence, causing theater practitioners to make selections based on the perimeters of the very system they seek to oppose. As Alison Jeffers points out, “The implicit need for narratives of trauma means that theatre makers may feel that other more complex narratives must be rejected because they do not fulfil the needs of bureaucratic performance” (Jeffers 2012, 151). Since the legal procedure for gaining asylum requires evidence of trauma which can frequently only be produced via performance, the theater often adopts the same criteria for aesthetic purposes.

Reinforcing oppositions

6Each of these previous dilemmas tend to contribute to the reinforcing of binary oppositions: us/them, judge/suppliant, citizen/refugee, inside/outside. Just as the depiction of the refugee as other can be done in ways that victimize instead of validating, so the role imparted to the spectators can also thrust them into configurations of superiority or oppression. This is not to say that those configurations cannot be creatively subverted. When such positions are transformed into something uncomfortable so that the audience members feel the weight of their complicity in geopolitical power structures or consumerist cycles of exploitation, the deliberate construction of a binary can turn against itself and coopt the normalized formations. However, the opposite is also true, inferring that even the most participatory performances which ask the audience to take the place of the refugee, walk in their shoes, and imagine themselves as the stranger do not necessarily challenge those distinctions and even run the very real risk of reinforcing them. In Jeffers words, “Interpellation and, more specifically, deliberately inaccurate interpellation within a theatrical frame is thus used to displace the refugee body in performance by re-placing it with the citizen’s body but all this does is to draw attention to the ways in which the citizen ultimately assumes the safety and security that comes with a sense of belonging” (Jeffers 2012, 67). Sometimes the performative journey in the refugee’s shoes causes us to cling all the tighter to what we think of as our innate privileges.

7By drawing attention to how immigrant theater faces specific ethical challenges that frequently fail to be adequately overcome, I do not seek to single out this genre as an easy target for criticism (which it all-too-often is), but to situate these obstacles as the backdrop for celebrating those instances in which a near insurmountable task is achieved, and theater manages to champion the cause of the refugee. As a case study, I will be looking at Good Chance Theatre’s involvement with the migrant camp in Calais and the main venue production, also called The Jungle, that grew out of those encounters.

The Jungle

  • 2 Replicas of Good Chance Theatre’s signature dome have since been constructed in several different l (...)

8The Jungle existed from January 2015 to October 2016, one year and 10 months, with an estimated total of over 9000 immigrants at its peak. Good Chance Theatre began in 2015 when Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson headed to Calais and decided to build a theatre in the shape of a geodome.2 The activities that took place inside and around the geodome were various and sundry, including visiting companies (such as the Royal Shakespeare Company), artist residencies, and humanitarian companies that travel from one refugee camp to another using theatrical exercises as a therapeutic device. An interview with Tom Bailey, who sojourned a number of times at Good Chance and currently serves as director of the theater company The Mechanical Animal Corporation, reveals that:

There were other companies that visited, who had in some cases extensive experience of arts work in refugee camps. But many of the artists running work were new to this work environment, and consequently found it very difficult. Everything in the Jungle was ad hoc. This was not an officially organized refugee camp, and had no centrally organizing charity. It was mainly run by volunteers, many of whom were learning on the job and did as best as they could. Performance in this context worked very differently. (Bailey 2020, 212)

9It is important to keep in mind that what “theater” means varies across geographical zones, and that, in the context of the Jungle, the refugees and immigrants that gathered there, for the most part, came from places where theater either was not present or was not considered a decent or acceptable activity for various religious and cultural reasons (ibid.). Because of this engrained anti-theatrical prejudice, the cultural art forms with which immigrants are generally more familiar and, in many instances, trained, tend to be song, music, and dance.

10All this to say that what we think of as theater may not immediately seem to be the intuitively obvious art form for generating community within refugee contexts. And Bailey openly recognizes this obstacle, even admitting that “Many refugees did not like the work that we were doing and walked away” (ibid. 213). Added to this was the near-constant presence of more-or-less well-meaning tourists, undercover police, and intrusive academics roaming the camp and filming or photographing the inhabitants for their research or art projects. As a refugee in transit through Calais, the very real problem of being captured on film is that it means you run the risk of being exposed as having violated the ‘first country of asylum’ principle. According to the EU-law Dublin regime, asylum must be claimed at the first safe country you reach. So, for many reasons, the attempt to introduce theater into the volatile refugee context of the Jungle was wrought with resistance, not least of all from the locals and the media who relentlessly contested that theater be considered an essential need or service (as compared to food, clothing, and shelter). Such resistance was also shared by many British citizens across the Channel. In an article for The Sunday Times, food critic A. A. Gill wrote about the reactions to his visit to the camp in these words, “Of all the things I have told people back home, the stuff about the theatre has caused the most eye-rolling, brow-furrowing, exasperated exhaling. What a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension, a theatre in a refugee camp, I was told” (Gill 2016). Thus from within and from without, and on both sides of the border, Good Chance Theatre faced steady opposition.

  • 3 The Jungle was commissioned by The Royal National Theatre and first presented at the Young Vic Thea (...)

11The Jungle is Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s first full-length play and was written after the demolition of the camp in Calais.3 It is their attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Afghan restaurant that existed there and is based on the people they met and the stories they heard. The cast is a mix of professional actors and refugees from the camp, overlapping categories that will merge further as the play continues to create professional opportunities. Specifically, three cast members (Yasin Moradi, Milan Tajmiri, and Mohamed Sarrar) were themselves refugees living in the camp in Calais before successfully making it to the UK and deciding to join in this theatrical effort to tell the camp's story. In all the productions so far, the character of Safi al-Hussein, a thirty-five-year-old from Aleppo, has been played by Ammar Haj Ahmad, a Syrian refugee.

12The entire play takes place in a make-shift restaurant built in the non-official refugee and migrant camp known as the Jungle located in Calais. Everyone there is hoping to transit onwards to the UK. Achieving this goal is referred to simply as “good chance,” as in “When I get good chance,” or “What if he gets good chance tonight?” etc. The opening scene begins at a crisis moment marking the beginning of the end of the camp, with bulldozers scheduled to clear the land. It is a moment of decision as the inhabitants, immigrants as well as aid workers, struggle to decide how they will react: Relocate? Resist?

13The play is narrated by Safi, a former literature student from Syria, helping introduce us to life in the Jungle. His narration is punctuated by vignettes in which other refugees tell harrowing tales of their own journeys, notably teenage boy Okot from Sudan. Four well-meaning but novice volunteers/activists from Britain are central characters in the play: Sam, a former boy-scout type who studied architecture at Eton and implements plans to build low-cost, portable housing structures on a large scale for the camp; Beth, an 18-year-old dedicated to providing some sort of schooling for the children; Boxer, a banjo-playing well-meaning drunk who wandered into the camp after finding himself homeless, and Paula, a militant lobbyist devoted to fighting for the protection of unaccompanied minors.

Precarity of the event (Why it never could have happened)

14The primary element providing the backdrop for the play, both artistically and in fact, is the non-existence of the camp. Not only did the camp no longer exist when the play was written and produced, but neither had it ever officially existed in reality. Never recognized in any official way, the camp was a no-man’s zone for both local law enforcement and international legislation. The refugees and migrants who found their way to the camp did not wish to be recognized as present on French soil as they were seeking to claim first point of entry in the UK. And as neither the people of Calais, the French government nor the British government nor even the refugees themselves wished to grant or be granted recognition, the Jungle remained an unregulated gathering of unidentifiable persons. This lack of recognition made it all the easier for consensus to be reached between both nations that the camp that never officially was should be dispersed and destroyed.

  • 4 In Safi’s own words: “[…] it takes pain to live side by side. If you were born in the same country (...)

15In addition, if the camp had existed, it is practically unimaginable that people from so many different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions in advanced states of distress would have been able to build any kind of functioning community with so little at their disposal. And if ever such an unthinkable event had in fact occurred, the final impossibility would be its theatrical representation on any ethically acceptable level.4 These are the conditions of (im)possibility wherein this play emerges, at an abandoned crossroads of history and politics in denial. Keeping this context at the forefront of our reflections can, I believe, allow for a deeper engagement with the play on its own terms, and with what it is trying to perform.

16Nearly inevitably, I suppose, when art tries to give an account of an historical event, the primary device is symbolic simplification, an attempt to render the event palpable via the intimacy of an individual. In this play, Europe’s immigration crisis as a whole is located in the Jungle, and the representation of the Jungle is reduced to a one-room restaurant which doubles as the theater. The massive children’s population of the camp is personified in the single character of Little Amal, a six-year-old girl from Syria. Similarly, the unnamed and uncounted deaths that come from the thousands who make nightly attempts to cross the border are neatly symbolized by the crushed body on the motorway of a single 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan named Norullah. His death is used as a framing device for the play. Indeed, the play opens with the announcement that a bulldozer is poised just outside for imminent demolition, reflecting the hopelessness and precarity of the situation which is then underscored on stage by the ritual burial of Norullah’s shrouded corpse.

Fig. 1: Ammar and Little Amal.

Fig. 1: Ammar and Little Amal.

Photo credit: Little Fang.

17Despite these symbolic reductions, the play gives the impression of boundless complexity, plunging the spectators into a startling cacophony. The opening stage directions indicate: “Everything happens quickly in the Jungle, all at once, everyone on top of each other and always present” (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 1, 13). Multiple languages are used without translation amid a sensory overload of bright colors, constant movement, confusing sounds, outside explosions and strong smells, including an episode involving tear gas. The productions are categorized as immersive: at the St. Ann’s Warehouse production in NY, audience members entered through a blue tarp tunnel, passing piles of stocked food and supplies before arriving in the broad tent space complete with a dirt floor. In all productions so far, spectators are seated at wooden tables which function as part of the restaurant décor and served hot cups of chai. The immersion is olfactory as well, with bread baking a signature part of the staging. In its production at The Curran, a cast member served food to an audience member at some point and then asked for 3€ in exchange. After a moment of hesitation, the audience member started to fumble around in her purse while the actor playing Salar said, “We can wait. It’s $5 with the exchange rate,” and he waited until she handed over the cash (Barmann 2019). Clarity is scarce and vagueness deliberate, and the mix of languages provides the impression of being thrust into the middle a chaotic multi-cultural crossroads. Emotion is served up in generous helpings as well, up-close and out-loud, ranging from on-stage inebriation to frequent weeping on the part of audience members. Moreover, the play begins at the end, which further augments its immersive character, as the audience members are thrown not only into the heat of the restaurant but also the heart of the story.

18Yet despite this impression of complexity, in comparison to the migrant camp itself, the play is actually staggeringly simplistic. The French police are depicted as merciless monsters, the people of Calais pitiless mercenaries, and Home Secretary “Theresa darling buds of fucking May” (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 4, 52), evil incarnate. While the forces exterior to the camp are demonized, what happens within the camp itself is romanticized, and the play glosses over or fails to properly evoke the cruelties and bloody conflicts between refugees that were also a very real part of the Jungle. So clearly, the play is not an attempt to give an objective historical account, despite its advertising claims to realistically recreate the camp’s atmosphere. And even that re-creation may serve to reinforce divisions, as Olivia Lamont Bishop claims in her article “Four thoughts on place and The Jungle”:

Perhaps in the stark and uncomfortable contrast between the recreation of the camp with the West End awnings and plush foyer, The Jungle is trying to be overt in its understanding of itself as a cultural offering that embodies self-reflexivity. The very execution of this place-imitation means that the audience is drawn into a comfortable, imagined, theatrical place, consisting of familiar dichotomies that we understand overtly as audience/performer, volunteer/refugee, writer/subject, us/them. As we watch we may feel empathy, but we are familiarly cushioned in the knowledge that this is a ‘meticulous recreation’, and that after the play finishes, we can walk outside; we can leave. (Bishop 2019, 106-107)

19Whether the recreation is an accurate one or not, it does not seem to me that the recreation is meant to be an end it itself. In fact, I would rather argue that the immersive experience is foregrounded by the transient and spectral nature of the space that was never a place, the home that was never a destination. The play does its best to incarnate the flagrant contradiction that was the Calais camp itself: a site that never officially existed, a gathering point whose only reason for being was to escape the very gathering, a no place filled to the breaking point with nobodies. In the words of the narrator Safi: “I thought this was a place, but it’s not. It’s between places. It doesn’t exist” (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 6, 105).

Impossibility of understanding (Why we could never have understood)

20The crisis state that was the camp is illuminated via the handful of individual stories huddled within the play, or, to echo the terms used by the young boy Okot, the handful of individual deaths each refugee experiences along their perilous passage from trauma, through trauma, towards ever more trauma. The stories within the play detonate like mini explosions in a war-torn landscape, punctuating the impossible precarity of the Jungle with bursts of incomprehensibility. And our lack of understanding is precisely the point. The despair of the characters is on display, either as refugees or aid workers, equally disillusioned. As for the refugees, they have come so far and survived so much only to be faced with perishing under a lorry at less than one hour from their final destination. The deathly waters of their journey have been replaced by asphalt, while the grave remains a collective and anonymous one. And those who survive must somehow come to terms with having already died a number of deaths.

21The volunteers, on the other hand, will go back to their lives as citizens forever haunted by the stories they heard and the help they could not bring. In this regard, the play is ultimately merely pretending to be a lot more simplistic than it really is. For despite the plea for hospitality to the hundreds of refugees still living in Calais at the close of the play, the relevance and effectiveness of the aid workers throughout the play is repeatedly challenged. The Jungle attracted any number of motley individuals, such as the character Boxer, an Englander who smuggled himself out of Britain for no particular reason and ended up in the refugee camp accidentally, which he found to be more welcoming than his own home:

Boxer: […] I’ve been here since last Monday. Hitched a ride down from Toon. Snuck on a ferry! Get out, get lost, find this. Half an hour, I’m chilling with a group of Pakistanis, a blind Mexican, some Afghan squidge and I’m banging on me banjo […]. I’ve got a theory, right. Everyone here is running from something. We’re all refugees. (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 3, 44)

22Then parodying a game show host, Boxer asks the other aid workers to introduce themselves on the set of “What you runnin’ from!” When political organizer Derek protests that he is not running away from anything but running towards community, the others finally lead him to admit that this is because he finds more community in the Jungle than in Britain, just like Beth, who came to Calais instead of going to university because she is disillusioned with the idea of exchanging 3 years of her life for 70 grand of debt. By the time another aid worker, Sam, suggests that he has come because “It’s terribly important to be able to see and understand different cultures. Bear witness,” (ibid. Act 3, 46), his speech provokes the following outcry from Boxor: “Jesus, say no more! Put that silver spoon back in your mouth, Paddington Bear Witness! You’ll have someone’s eye out” (ibid.). This unforgiving depiction of aid workers as folks who are themselves looking for a home is presented as providing a disservice to the refugees in the sense that it attempts to normalize their plight or even romanticize it. Near the end of the play, the restaurant owner Salar speaks these lines to the aid workers:

Salar: We have trusted you with our lives. If you are here for opportunity, or holiday, or because this place is better than your home, leave. We do not want you. The last thing Zhangal needs is more refugees. (ibid.Act 5, 86-87)

23The primary tension at the heart of the play is thus about the irreducible messiness of trying to help. At the end, even our narrator Safi decides to flee. He asks his friend the smuggler to get him out: “I have to leave, Ali. I will kill myself by staying” (ibid. Act 6, 106). Ali asks him:

Ali: Where is your coat?
Safi: I left it.
Ali: You gave it away […]. You’ll freeze to death. When are you going to stop this? This act. The man who helps (ibid. Act 6, 105).

24The call to stop helping/acting rings forth a number of times throughout the evening, in a disturbing gesture that disables any pretentions of the play’s self-satisfaction. For example, Sam’s plan to provide housing relies on the superior skills of the refugees to build their own homes, and Paula even challenges the categorization of the immigration crisis:

Paula: Oh, come on, Beth. It’s only a crisis because we’re calling it that. A million people, Europe shits her knickers. Population of seven hundred million, that’s nought point fuck knows per cent. Go to Jordon, quarter of people are refugees. Lebanon, it’s a third. Crisis? European governments need to stop breaking their own laws, and then we need to stop our obsession with helping.
Helene: You think we don’t need help?
Paula: Look at this place! Give people a chance, a hammer, some nails, build a city in a day! You’re better than we are. Smarter. Braver. We’re the ones who need fucking help. (
ibid. Act 6, 90)

25After an exchange about the term “virtue signaling” coined by journalist James Bartholomew to describe merely decorative displays of outrage, the following scene features a parodic Christmas carol sung by Boxer as he distributes shoe boxes donated by the British people to children in the Jungle: “It’s Christmas in the Jungle, so it’s time for something pleasant / Court’sy of the British public, everybody’s gettin’ a present” (ibid. Act 6, 93). As he hands a box to Little Amal, he continues:

Boxer: The look upon her face when she sees the Nikey box.
Score! I’ve got myself some Airs, a brand new pair of high tops.
She rips it up and looks inside, it’s ‘Haddaway again!’
A packet of pantie liners and some Nivea for Men! (ibid. Act 6, 94)

26Such comedic moments that openly mock more or less thinly-veiled attempts to help are juxtaposed with deeply poignant and utterly sincere ones, as when Beth, the 18-year-old British volunteer, becomes desperate enough to pay a smuggler to ensure safe passage to England for Okot, a refugee barely younger than herself. This is against all her principles as Beth holds smugglers responsible for “the whole situation” (ibid. Act 6, 103). Ali, a Kurdish smuggler, begins to defend his role but then stops short, telling her, “I like you, Beth. You are trying to understand. But you can’t” (ibid. Act 6, 104). When Okot tries to talk to Beth about what he calls his many deaths, their exchange is punctuated with Beth’s hopelessly inadequate attempts to sympathize:

Beth: I know.
Okot: You know?
Beth: I didn’t mean that. I mean I can imagine.
A long pause.
Okot: What do you know of me? […]
Beth: I know about the boats […]
I don’t know […]
Safi: She doesn’t know. They don’t know.
Okot: Your mind cannot think.
Safi: Do you think we’d be here if they knew? (
ibid. Act 5, 74-77)

27Okot’s harrowing tale of deprivation, torture, and shipwreck continues, joined by other characters who provide various voices and sound effects to enhance the telling. Despite the nearly unbearable dramatic charge of the story, Safi matter-of-factly concludes the scene with the indefinite pronoun ‘you’ off-handedly addressed to the audience: “And you have heard this story before. A thousand times, I am sure” (ibid. Act 5, 83). He then suddenly announces that it is November 13, 2015, the day of the Paris attacks and the end of wide-spread empathy for refugees. The Jungle thus contains within itself a clear disavowal of its own pretentions and an acknowledgement of the limits of story-telling to sway public opinion when confronted with a conflicting narrative. If the play is trying to speak for anyone, it speaks for the spectators when Beth finally admits, “We have no idea what’s actually happening” (ibid. Act 6, 90), an assessment confirmed by Safi’s comment that if we did, there would not be a refugee crisis.

How the extraordinary becomes ordinary (Would you like a naan?)

28One could argue that what saves the play from crumbling under the weight of its own disavowal is that it never situates itself on the outside. It plants itself firmly within the immersive experience it is trying to be. And to the extent that this is true, this is where the miracle breaks out. For precisely amid this conglomeration of exponential despair appears fresh bread, a warm coat, a friendship. Not the end of humanity, but its origins. The play’s epigraph is from author and food critic A. A. Gill:

‘The desperate desire of everyone is that this is a temporary stop. A brief, cold and trying moment. But despite the best intentions, the Jungle is beginning to become a place, with churches and theatres and art and restaurants. It is germinating into that collective home. But then, isn’t this how all places once began? With refugees stopping at a river, a beach, a crossroads, and saying, we’ll just pause here for a bit. Put on the kettle, kill a chicken.’ (ibid. 12)

29This epigraph is pulled from an actual food review that the late A. A. Gill wrote during his visit to the camp in Calais, in which he also describes “a touchingly divine Ethiopian Coptic church, built from tarpaulin and bits of lost wood […] I think the church has just been bulldozed” (Gill 2016). Though appreciating beauty while emphasizing its precarity may not be all that surprising for a food critic, Gill’s recognition of the camp’s becoming a place despite itself and “despite the best intentions,” as a mere rehearsal of human civilization’s simplest founding ritual, explodes the binary constructions separating us from them. By juxtaposing “that collective home” with “all places,” the epigraph perfectly encapsulates the sense of shared community the play is attempting to evoke. And thus, breaking bread together is not a mere stage prop designed to provide cheap thrills for a paying audience but an invocation of our common beginnings.

30At the same time, the strange reversal operated by depicting a home created against everyone’s “desperate desire” that the camp serve no other purpose than to not exist unsettles our assumptions about home and belonging. This is echoed in a conversation between Beth and Sam in which she discovers he went to school at Eton and remarks, “Eton, the Jungle. Bit of a leap.” He replies, “For the first time in my life no one cares where I come from” (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 4, 62-63), refracting multiple levels of social categorization and other connotations of what it might mean to not have the requisite papers/diplomas.

31There are small celebrations amid the desperation, such as Salar’s birthday party, prompting a birthday speech in which he acknowledges how lucky he is to even know his date of birth:

Salar: In Afghanistan many people do not know their birthdays. Because of the wars, no one kept records. So, and this is true, I have – I had thirty-seven friends who all have their birthday on January 1st. But I am lucky. My mother wrote mine down. This is maybe the strangest place I have celebrated my birthday. And the strangest group of friends. But friends. Now get out my restaurant! There is a border to cross! (ibid. Act 5, 68)

32Drawing our attention to this “strangest place,” Salar welcomes us into his makeshift structure only to bid us to take our leave, reminding us that his restaurant is a mere placeholder, similar to the default birthdate of January 1st for his former companions. We are not actually “there” any more than to the extent that our presence mirrors the already double transgression of the no-one, no-where camp’s founding pretext.

Fig. 2: Ben Turner and Mo Amiri.

Fig. 2: Ben Turner and Mo Amiri.

Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.

33These small flickers of light shine all the brighter for the darkness of the background, just as the comic moments glitter against the dark gravity of its context. In one scene, Beth is trying to give the children an English lesson:

Beth: OK, English this morning. Tenses. Let’s go back to the present. Tell me about the lorries!
Norullah: We climb on top of lorry roof, then cut.
Beth: With what?
Norullah: Have knife.
Maz: I have knife!
Everyone in the class pulls out a knife.
Beth: Knives in pockets, please.
Norullah: This word, the thing we cut?
Beth: The canvas?
Norullah: Canvas. Then climb to hole.
Beth: Climb through the hole.
Norullah: Yes! Sorry. Climb through the hole. Then take from shoes.
Beth: Take what from shoes?
Helene: The strings!
Beth: The laces? Why?
Norullah: For tie up hole!
Yasin: To stop the light come in when police have search.
Beth: Have you all done this?
All: Yes!
Beth: God. What happens next?
Beth: Very good! All together now, back to the beginning. You climb on top of the lorry roof.
Norullah: I cut the canvas with my knife –
Omar: I climb through the hole –
Yasin: I tie the hole with shoe laces –
Maz: And my friend from Afghanistan –
Helene: Hides me inside a box –
Maz: Box furthest from the lorry door –
Norullah: Because I can’t hide myself!
Beth: Now we’re getting somewhere! Write it down. (
ibid. Act 4, 54-55)

34The comic nature of “getting somewhere” in the context of an English lesson that corrects the grammar and vocabulary mistakes of so many failed and aborted attempts conspicuously serves as a metaphor for the suspected futility of the volunteer work happening in the Jungle.

35Yet not merely despite but more importantly because of the admitted futility, The Jungle builds a home which it has no pretensions of being able to maintain, as indicated by the eponymic echoing of the name that already denies its own recognition as a place compatible with human habitation. The question of home dominates the promotional trailers of the play, dramatically emphasizing’s Salar’s rhetorical lines as he asks:

When does a place become a place? By November in the Jungle I could walk from Sudan through Palestine and Syria, pop into a Pakistani café on Oxford Street near Egypt, buy new shoes from the marketplace, Belgian cigarettes from an Iraqi cornershop, through Somalia, hot naan from the Kurdish baker, passing dentists, Eritrea, distribution points, Kuwait, hairdressers and legal centres, turn right on to François Hollande Street, turn left on to David Cameron’s Avenue, stop at the sauna, catch a play in the theatre, service at the church, khutba in a mosque, before arriving at Salar’s restaurant in Afghanistan. When does a place become home? (ibid. Act 5, 67).

36Recalling Sarah Ahmed’s description of strange or abject bodies as “bodies that are not inhabited, are not liveable as such, or indeed, are not at home,” Jeffers writes, “The ‘unliveable’ zone within which (abject) refugee bodies live becomes a kind of no-where, neither home nor not home, maybe beyond home” (Jeffers 2012, 64). Such an ‘unliveable’ zone, “neither home nor not home, maybe beyond home” as a description for refugee bodies provides a further level of possible meaning to the Jungle as forming and calling into being the body of refugees in a liturgical sense. In this sense, coming together to break bread is not merely symbolical but as real as the 9000 bodies that cohabited that once liminal space. And the play then prompts a gathering of other bodies in remembrance, a rising from the ashes in a re-member-ing of this the camp’s strangest of communities.


37In spite of the admitted obstacles to theatrical representation within the refugee context, Bailey ends his interview with this acknowledgment:

But for those who were in need of what we were offering, I feel that performance plays a valuable role in a context I have come to call ‘suspended identity’ […]. It was not about ‘performing one’s journey’ or returning to a site of trauma to process it; it was about opening awareness to the here, the now . . . the work of theater could assist in the processing of this identity-suspension, in the witnessing and recognition of it by self and others in the act of doing something imaginatively together. (Bailey 2020, 213)

38Theatrical performance as an act of suspension is I think a particularly apt way of describing how representation can work against itself to evoke the journey towards a yet-to-exist reality. Predicated on the in-between, attention to processes of suspension abound in The Jungle as the play summons the invisibility of refugees into our line of sight. Acknowledging the coincidence of home and bodies, or bodies-at-home, The Jungle embraces the concurrence of no-one with no-place, recreating the illusion of what exists only in the in-between, this state of perpetual deferral between borders. Just as The Jungle repeatedly insists that it is not a place, so the refugees it represents adamantly deny that they are present or presented:

Beth: How did you survive?
Helene: We didn’t.
Beth: But you’re here now.
Okot: This is not us. (Murphy and Robertson 2018, Act 5, 82)

39Near the end of the play, Safi reaches the breaking point and decides he has to leave the Jungle, finding himself bereft of all humanity. Claiming that the Jungle is not a place but between places, he applies the same expression to its inhabitants: “Refugees, migrants, whatever we fucking are. But not people, Ali. We’re between people” (ibid. Act 6, 105).

40When theater does not attempt to represent peoples and situations that its spectators could only but pretend to understand, it allows its horizon to open onto its own impossibility, evoking a beyond representation that offers a promise of self-transformation. In this way, the refugee’s plight mirrors theatre’s fundamental features: A place of suspension whose primary function is to create a no-place, filled with no-bodies whose tales are meant to represent no-one. The story is told in the hope that it invalidates itself, implodes in the telling, ceases to represent the people whose stories it conveys, not unlike the onions the smuggler Ali uses in the play to deflect the police dogs. As Beth entrusts Okot into Ali’s care, she instructs him, in what I see as a metatheatrical gesture, to find the nearest police station upon his arrival in the UK: “Tell them your story, exactly like you told me. Tell them you are a child. Tell them you want to claim asylum. This journey, this story. It won’t be you any more. This is the hope” (ibid. Act 7, 117). Similarly, theater that truly champions the plight of the refugee strives to render itself redundant, suspended, a placeholder for identities left behind on journeys toward new forms of belonging.

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Bailey, Tom. “The Empty Space: Performing migration at the Good Chance Theatre in Calais.” In Refuge in a Moving World: Tracing refugee and migrant journeys across disciplines. Edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. London: UCL Press, 2020. 210-227.

Barmann, Jay. “The Jungle Tells the Loud, Visceral, Messy Story of a Real-Life Refugee Camp.” Review for SFIST, April 8, 2019. (accessed 29 October 2021).

Bishop, Olivia Lamont. “Four thoughts on place and The Jungle.” In Performing Ethos: An International Journal of Ethics in Theatre & Performance. Vol 9. (2019): 105-110.

Cox, Emma. Theatre & Migration. Palgrave Macmillan, Theatre & Series, 2014.

Gill, A. A. “Table Talk: A. A. Gill reviews a refugee camp in the Calais jungle.” The Sunday Times. February 28, 2016. (accessed 29 October 2021).

Gotlib, Anna. “I Am Not Your Canvas: Narratives, Nostalgia, and the (Re)claiming of Refugee Voices.” In Refugees Now: Rethinking Borders, Hospitality, and Citizenship. Edited by Kelly Oliver, Lisa Madura, and Sabeen Ahmed. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. 239-257.

Guterman, Gad. Performance, Identity, and Immigration: A Theatre of Undocumentedness. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Jeffers, Alison. Refugees, Theatre and Crisis: Performing Global Identities. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Murphy, Joe and Joe Robertson. The Jungle. London: Faber & Faber, 2018.

Sams, Victoria. Immigration and Contemporary British Theatre: Finding a Home on the Stage. Washington D.C/Baltimore, Bern, Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Oxford: Peter Lang, Postcolonial Studies 13, 2014.

Wilmer, S.E. Performing Statelessness in Europe. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

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1 And even here, more hurdles must be faced. The very fact of skillfully presenting one’s story may raise suspicions, as Alison Jeffers warns, “In emphasizing their apparent helplessness and vulnerability to make their bureaucratic performance credible to a non-refugee audience, noisy refugees raise suspicions that they may be active agents with some sort of autonomy and that is seen as threatening and incompatible with their role as refugees” (Jeffers 2012, 86).

2 Replicas of Good Chance Theatre’s signature dome have since been constructed in several different locations, helping thousands of refugees to share their different cultures via song, dance, and play. The initiative is driven by the conviction that “expression is a human right.”

3 The Jungle was commissioned by The Royal National Theatre and first presented at the Young Vic Theatre in December 2017 in a co-production by the National Theatre and the Young Vic with Good Chance Theatre. Then The Jungle opened at the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End in June 2018 before opening at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York in December 2018. From March 26th to May 19th 2019, it opened at The Curran in San Francisco and had intended to return to St. Ann’s in 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19.

4 In Safi’s own words: “[…] it takes pain to live side by side. If you were born in the same country as another person this is true. If you were born in a different country, a different continent, even more […]. These are difficult things, my friends. I do not pretend we did not make mistakes. And many more will be made in the telling of this story, I am sure” (Act 2, p. 25-26).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Ammar and Little Amal.
Crédits Photo credit: Little Fang.
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Fig. 2: Ben Turner and Mo Amiri.
Crédits Photo credit: Teddy Wolff.
Fichier image/jpeg, 175k
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Anna Street, « Refugee Theater and Its Transgressions: Acts of Suspension in Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 31 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna Street

Le Mans Université

Anna Street is Lecturer in Theatre & Performance Studies at Le Mans Université. She holds a double doctorate in English Studies from Sorbonne Universités and in Comparative Literature from the University of Kent. Core-convener of the Performance Philosophy network, she is particularly devoted to the promotion of intercultural and interdisciplinary exchanges between philosophical reflection and performance, particularly in relation to comedy. Translator of ten volumes within Les Petits Platons collection, she is also co-editor of Inter Views in Performance Philosophy. A volume of dialogues on philosophy and dramatic genres, co-edited with Ramona Mosse, is forthcoming with Routledge. In addition to refugee theater, her current research interests include the use and representation of water on stage as well as puppet satire.

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