“I could not do my job right now, with everything else I am involved in, if I wasn’t doing The Jungle,” Sonia Friedman tells me. “It allows me just a bit more peace in my life, to sleep a little more, because I am putting my energy into something that really fucking matters.”
For Friedman, the most powerful figure in British theatre, what really matters are refugees and the British government’s treatment of them.
I meet her at London’s Playhouse Theatre, which her team have temporarily gutted to create a replica of the Calais refugee camp. Where there was once ormolu and Edwardian chintz there are, from now until late November, just plywood, sawdust and tarpaulin.
She’s about to launch an edgy, politically committed play, first produced at the Young Vic last year, into the full commercial glare of a 20-week run in the West End. To say this is a bit of a risk is an understatement.
The Jungle is set in an Afghan-run café inside the Calais refugee camp, before the French authorities cleared it in 2016. The audience sits at wooden tables, the actors – some of whom were actually refugees living in the camp – perform on the table tops.
There is violence, grief, trauma and relentless tension. It is a tale from which nobody – neither the refugees themselves, nor their traffickers, nor the white British volunteers who help them – emerge as heroes.
Yet the play’s message is transformative. While it’s possible to come out of it with your views about the asylum issue unchanged, it’s impossible to think about the refugees in the same way. They become human. You laugh with them and at them. You ask – and Friedman says this is already happening as audiences leave the West End previews – what can I do?
If it comes off, Friedman’s gamble could be a turning point in British commercial theatre. Take a stroll along Shaftesbury Avenue and you’ll find Michael Jackson’s Thriller Live, Imperium – a shlock and gore adaptation of the Robert Harris novels – the interminable Les Mis, the teen musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Friedman’s current blockbuster, Harry Potter.
None of these shows are dire; some of them are highly relevant (Imperium manages to take a swipe at Trump); but none of them takes a directly political risk. I can’t recall any mainstream theatre producer attempting something so dissonant with theatreland’s idea of what sells, so devoid of star names, and so intrinsically brilliant.
Why might it work? For one thing, timing. One of the most haunting plotlines in The Jungle is the presence of a young unaccompanied child. The script gives her just one word to say, but she is surrounded by adults in whom she has to place her trust. Unsettling when the play first appeared, in light of the furore around Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” order, which tore thousands of migrant children from their parents in the US, the play’s treatment of the “unaccompanied minor” issue looks red-hot relevant.
Meanwhile, the refugee issue threatens to blow the European Union apart. Angela Merkel’s gesture in 2015, opening Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers, seems a long time ago. Italy is now run by a party that revels in thwarting rescue operations for refugees at sea. Austria, by a coalition of conservatives and neo-Nazis. The ruling coalition in Germany itself has fractured, as right-wing members of Merkel’s sister party have forced her into tougher immigration controls.
When they began rehearsals for the West End transfer, The Jungle’s production team wondered if they’d missed the moment, says David Lan, who commissioned the project for the Young Vic and remains executive producer. Not anymore. Two weeks before the West End production opened, fascists and football hooligans rioted in down Whitehall, less than 250 yards from the theatre, protesting the jail sentence on far right leader Tommy Robinson.
The play, in short, opens in the middle of a global furore over migration and unresolved tensions over it here in the UK.
“This is the culmination of my twenty year producing career,” Friedman says. Though she expects to pull in the politicised, cosmopolitan audience of London, the show can only succeed if, over the summer, word of mouth starts to pull in mainstream theatregoers. “I want The Jungle to be talked about alongside Harry Potter, The Lion King and Dreamgirls,” she says.
Watching the audience laugh, gasp and, inevitably, cry, I wondered what Theresa May might make of it. You could walk from Downing Street to the Playhouse in less than five minutes, and it wouldn’t take much longer from the Home Office, where Sajid Javid is busy trying to remedy the gross human rights abuses that were legitimised under May’s “hostile environment” policy.
But therein lies the entire problem of UK immigration policy. In order for May to enact the Windrush deportation policy, its victims had to be invisible. Ministers may sign off the dawn raids and midnight flights that facilitated 12,000 “enforced returns” last year – but they may never meet those subject to the enforcement face to face, as humans.
So for the next 20 weeks – which, to adapt Harold Wilson’s phrase, is set to be a very long time in politics – the cabinet will deliberate on migration, racism and asylum. But its members dare not, either publicly or in disguise, venture through the Asquith-era portals of the Playhouse. For there, they would be forced to confront the human costs of the orders their fountain pens sign off.
If it succeeds in attracting a traditional West End audience, The Jungle will see actors who arrived in Britain as asylum seekers performing to people who’ve arrived by airliner from America, China or the Middle East. People, in short, with rights to move around the world that many in the cast may not have.
It’s this universality of the experience of movement that the play’s writers hope will forge a connection. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson co-wrote The Jungle after setting up a theatre inside the camp itself. Murphy says: “We need to reframe the idea of movement. Away from ‘bad things happened there so people will move’. The reality of globalisation means that all people will move. We speak to each other and know each other more than ever before in our history. That’s the new framework.”
I’ve reported on the lives of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants over the last decade, from Tangier to Patras to Phoenix, Arizona. The stories are always complicated, a mixture of squalor and hope. I’ve never seen the squalor better portrayed than in The Jungle, nor how fragile the hope becomes.
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit