Entertainment » Theatre

The Jungle

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Apr 9, 2019
A scene from "The Jungle"
A scene from "The Jungle"  

The only real problem with "The Jungle" at the Curran Theatre is that there aren't ten more plays like it every year.

That's not to say that this hypersensitive production by UK-based directors Justin Martin and Stephen Daldry is not without fault. It makes probably as many mistakes as any similarly ambitious new show.

But "The Jungle" is playing a much different game, and its successes are in a class all their own.

With the exception of people too vulnerable for Martin and Daldry's highly aggressive design (which transplants the audience violently into the midst of current events), we can say without reservation that pretty much everyone should see "The Jungle" if the opportunity presents itself.

Set in a refugee camp on the coast of France just a few years ago, "The Jungle" recreates that environment in as exacting detail as possible.

Miriam Buether's set almost completely conceals the Curran's plush interior; the audience is instead seated within a facsimile of the Afghan Cafe, a makeshift diner built and operated by Salar (Ben Turner), a cagey but deeply passionate refugee from decades of Afghan wars.

Turner's kitchen at the back of the theater really works — he serves naan to the guests in some rows, and at one point stops the entire show to haggle over payment.

Next to the kitchen is a one-room shack that serves as his home; none of the show's action takes place here and it's visible for only a few second as guests find their seat. The bedroom is simply there because, presumably, that's where it was in the real cafe too.

Audiences sit at long benches on a dirt floor, underneath a ceiling knitted together from tarps and fabric. Cast members surround the seating at all times — shouting, joking, fighting, rushing into action. The atmosphere is almost pure chaos.

The illusion is of course not perfect. But the recreation is so persuasive that some elements — the terrifying violence of a police raid or the ominous sound of passing trucks — will engender real, visceral reactions from audience members who frankly may not know what they're getting into.

That's the one big flaw "The Jungle": Viewers who are, say, living with PTSD might want to stay away, and the production really should provide more adequate warning.

While there are the usual admonitions about the use of smoke and faux gunfire, the difference between these elements in "The Jungle" and most shows is not only night and day, it's different pages of the calendar.

In "The Jungle," thousands of refugees from war, terrorism, genocide, and state persecution languish in the lawless, semi-organized camp at Calais, hoping to start new lives in the United Kingdom, just 20 miles away on the others side of the British Channel.

Khaled Zahabi plays Norullah, Salar's surrogate son, who treats camp life and his constant, dangerous attempts to sneak across the channel as a kind of sport but hides mounting desperation behind his class clown demeanor.

Rachid Sabitri is Ali, an opportunistic smuggler who exploits the camp residents but also serves as one of the community leaders, appearing eerily at peace with his contrasting roles.

The single most graphic story is John Pfumojena as Okot, a teenager from Sudan so transformed by grief and violence that, as he explains in a chilling monologue, he's no longer the same person those things even happened to. "A refugee dies many times," he says, until life itself seems not to exist.

The show seems a bit uncertain when it comes to the parts of the British volunteer workers, who bring aid and material help to the camp but also live as the ultimate outsiders in it.

Only Lorraine Bruce, as foulmouthed bleeding heart Paula, appears completely sure of herself, and the show wastes some energy fretting about whether the Brits need to justify their presence.

Playwrights Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy were themselves volunteers in the real Jungle, and wrote the show from experience. Two of the actors — Mohamed Sarrar and Yasin Moradi — were once refugees in the camp.

"The Jungle's" authenticity makes brilliant theater, but as journalism it's just harrowing. Because the ugly truth underlying this story is simply that neglect is always, always fatal.

Ignoring a problem doesn't solve it. Neither does locking it up, evicting it, or berating it. The problem is invulnerable. The people beneath it are not.

"The Jungle" plays through May 19 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit https://sfcurran.com

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