The Jungle - A Must See London Play

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Sitting on a park bench, bent over, with my face in my Choose Love t-shirt I tried to muffle my cries. I was starting to tire myself out. Erin and Karine sat on either side of me, struggling to verbalize our complicated feelings. I wasn’t ready for words yet but I was comforted by their attempts. We had just seen The Jungle at the Playhouse in London. The show started at the end without context or preamble.

The scene was of several groups of people gathered in a restaurant. Their anxiety hung heavy in the air. Multiple languages were being spoken including French, Arabic, English, and others I didn’t recognize. There was a young girl and a few women but mostly young men. There were characters with clipboards attempting to organize the crowd, with little success. Gradually it became clear that there was a threat of a military or law enforcement raid and they were all at risk. The news that someone was hit and killed on the motorway spread through the groups until one of the clipboard women left to identify the body. The chaos continued in anticipation of a raid until the woman returned. The crowd fell silent as she gave the victim’s name to one of the leaders. Although not yet significant to the audience, the name rocked everyone in the scene.

The scene ended with the beginning of a raid—shouting, flashing lights, smoke, and alarm. I still can’t quite explain how they conveyed the terror so strongly to me sitting in the balcony. It wasn’t just my time in France and my own experience with the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite (CRS) that fueled my fear. I could sense that the rest of the audience was experiencing that moment much the same way. I struggled to breathe as I remembered that I was safe in London. Then I struggled with my next breath as I remembered that this was still happening just across the Channel in Calais, France.

The panic on stage froze as the lead character stepped into the spotlight to bring us up to speed. This would be a play about the now destroyed, unofficial refugee settlement in Calais that came to be known as The Jungle. It would take place in a restaurant that had actually existed in The Jungle called The Welcome Restaurant. The story is based on real events and some of the actors were refugees who lived in The Jungle before it was destroyed in fall of 2016. Karine, Erin, and I had all been to Calais and volunteered with the grassroots organizations that were represented by the characters with clipboards.

When I arrived in France in spring of 2017 the Jungle was gone but the people were not. There was no restaurant to gather in. People gathered in fields. There were no shelters with locks like those described in the play. People slept under plastic makeshift tents, trees, or the stars. And there were no reporters from London coming to write reviews of the food or report of the dangers. Calais had been forgotten.

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I had bought a Choose Love t-shirt on my way into the Playhouse but not tissues. Before intermission I was already sobbing into the shirt. All my fear for the people still in France, with more coming every day, flooded over me as the characters walked us through the perils they faced—in their country, in their travels, and now in France. When one of the volunteers was confronted with police brutality she screamed “this is not France!” I once again found myself chanting “breathe, breathe, breathe,” in my mind. It was how I felt when I was there and I have heard Karine, who is French, say much the same. Erin and I have expressed similar feelings about the United States.

But this is exactly France just as this is exactly the United States. Those of us with the privilege to benefit from the way our society is set up can’t fathom it when we are confronted with the way that others survive. Although for Karine, Erin, and me The Jungle was a painful reminder of what we were already aware, for many in the audience it brought to light a reality that was invisible. We should not be allowed to leave these atrocities in the dark—pregnant mothers sleeping in bushes, men barely old enough to shave beaten for believing the U.K. would be better than home, thousands in a first world country denied drinking water. The Jungle gives a vivid depiction of the tragedy of the situation in Calais, which is far from over—with no end in sight.

Sitting in the audience I struggled with my feelings—the urge to go back to France and continue the work I did last spring and guilt because I never want to go back. I spent a month there; Erin and Karine have gone multiple times for a few days at a time. If you are able, I encourage you to volunteer your time with one of the grassroots organizations operating in Calais and Dunkirk—Care4Calais, Refugee Community Kitchen, Help Refugees, Utopia 56, the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Centre. If you are unable to give your time, please consider making a donation. These organizations are volunteer run and operated. They depend on donations to function. They are doing the job that governments and the United Nations should be doing. Can you support them?

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Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist