The Jungle
Ammar Haj Ahmad in the 2023 St. Ann’s Warehouse production of The Jungle; Credit: Teddy Wolff

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

From the moment I put The Jungle on my calendar, I wondered how an immersive production depicting the massive migrant camp in Calais, France, that housed thousands of refugees between 2015 and 2016, would fit into Sidney Harman Hall. The play, written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson of London’s Good Chance Theatre, which specializes in creating work alongside displaced communities, promised grit; Sidney Harman Hall, located across F Street NW from Capital One Arena, is all glitz. My curiosity intensified when I finally collected my ticket and saw where I was sitting: “Sudan 39.”

With the help of ushers in reflective vests, I stepped into the world of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s production: a makeshift restaurant presided over by an intense, charismatic Afghan named Salar (Ben Turner). “Sudan 39,” it turned out, was at the end of a bench in front of a long table facing a set of interconnected walkways. Other patrons sat on benches, a raised floor, or in rows of seats peeking in from the “outside.” Above me was a patchwork of fabrics and simple lighting instruments; below, a carpet of soil and wood chips. As I settled in, a tall man, whom I would later come to know as Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati), placed a flyer on my table, informing me that an important meeting would take place very soon. I immediately questioned what was expected of me. STC’s press contact had suggested I was in a seat that promised no interaction with the cast; thankfully, that proved to be off the mark.

It soon became apparent that Salar’s establishment, based on a real place in the camp that caught the eye of late food and travel writer A.A. Gill, here designed by Miriam Buether and lit by Jon Clark, is more than just a restaurant. It’s also a map of the camp itself, which has been divided into sections corresponding to the major nationalities represented in the populace. Hence, Sudan sat across from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, and not far from Syria and Eritrea. As I started taking notes, I noticed the migrants—actors, of course, dressed in eclectic, functional costumes by Catherine Kodicek—milling around. One even offered me a cup of chai, which I gladly accepted. Something about the exchange made me realize this was not the kind of show I could scribble through and tucked my pad and pen away, just in time for the shouting to start.

A group of White volunteers from the UK—Sam (Jonathan Case), Paula (Julie Hesmondhalgh), Beth (Liv Hill), Boxer (Pearce Quigley), and Derek (Dominic Rowan)—emerge onto the catwalks and start barking updates about the impending demise of the camp. The Africans, Arabs, and Asians on the outskirts—among them Amal (Alexandra Lexie Abrams/Parinika Pari Dialani), Hassan (Fayez Bakhsh), Birhane (Salih Mahammed), Hamid (Yasin Moradi), Maz (Fedrat Sadat), Omar (Mohamed Sarrar), Milan (Milan Tajmiri), Farouk (Beko Wood), and Simret (Ruth Yemane)—cry out in anguish. Everyone hustles pell-mell from spot to spot; bodies brush me on their way to and from the stage. It’s chaos—staged chaos, but effective enough to make me worry about catching a stray boot in the face. Only after the police have crashed their way in does it all slow down. Out steps Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), a refugee from the Syrian city of Aleppo. “Start from the end,” he says with a knowing smile, passing on a little storytelling nous he picked up as a student of literature.

From then on, Safi takes us through the story leading up to the camp’s demise, serving as a narrator of questionable reliability. Reliability is hard to come by in the camp known colloquially (if derisively) as the Jungle. Can Mohammed, as leader of the Sudanese, rely on Salar to uphold their fragile alliance, especially when impish Afghan Norullah (Twana Omer) keeps going at level-headed Sudanese Okot (Rudolphe Mdlongwa)? Can Ali (Waleed Elgadi), the smuggler, be trusted to deliver his charges to the UK, or Henri (Max Geller), the French official, to deliver on his government’s promise not to evict them? Can these White volunteers truly rise above their latent imperialist disposition? Perhaps, as Eritrean refugee Helene (Mylène Gomera) proclaims, when there are no good choices, there are no choices at all.

The Jungle, finely made in every way, wields the dissonance in such a tense, diverse space with devastating effect. The name of the camp is derived from an unwieldy translation of the Pashto word “zhangal,” meaning “forest”; the beastly resonance of “the Jungle” irks its citizens, who, despite interethnic and interracial tensions, show themselves far more collaborative than the privileged Western powers that keep them on the margins. Even more affecting is the way the production hauls the audience across an emotional spectrum. At one point, the whole camp thrums with music and dance. I am drafted to hold a flashlight on the chief drummer driving the celebration on. At the height of ecstasy, the cast goes silent, and the TVs mounted in the corners of the room switch to the infamous image of Alan Kurdi, the 2-year old Syrian boy found dead on the shores of the Mediterranean in 2015. The music has loosened us up, and this grim icon hits me harder than ever.

Dissonance was everywhere in the upstairs lobby, where I accepted my free wine and treats after leaving the camp. It was in the geodesic dome where patrons sampled a VR experience of the camp, an exercise that seemed far more artificial than the choreographed spectacle I had just participated in. It was there in the program, where Good Chance Theatre, named for the “good chance” of getting to the UK that all the migrants in the Jungle hope for, is nestled alongside carefully marketed NGOs and the two major organizations, Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, that brought the show to D.C. It’s there in the project itself, embodying people who have so little bodily autonomy themselves. At its best, The Jungle gets that dissonance. It’s up to the rest of us to make sense of it—perhaps by donating to The Jungle Fund or getting involved by volunteering and advocating.

As we caught up, a friend on staff at STC told me I could write what I wanted in my review; the show is very nearly sold out. Good news for everyone involved, bad news for anyone who cannot wheedle a spot in Salar’s restaurant. Try to make the trip anyway; for theater as convicting as this, any good chance is a chance worth taking.

The Jungle, written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson of London’s Good Chance Theatre and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, runs through April 16 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Sold out.