|The Jungle at the Young Vic|
The play was perhaps of particular importance for me, as Border Crossings is working on the new Season of Migrations, and in a couple of weeks I will be in Turkey, joining our partners at Adana University to learn from their work in the refugee camps there. I had been feeling a deep concern about the ethical dimension of this - how is it possible for artists from the very Western countries that have responded so shockingly to the displacement of so many migrants to engage with them in a way that does not become mere voyeurism? How can we participate in a manner that is both creatively valid and politically potent? In the Voices of Culture report, we looked predominantly at work that engaged refugees in an instrumental way, at the same time as lamenting the failure of the cultural sector and of governments to open real dialogues and to engage in genuine intercultural exchange. My recent talk at the European Culture Forum in Milan made the same point - we can't just employ culture as a way of moulding refugees into some pre-determined new identity, or (worse) as a means to distance them as they "tell their own stories" and make the liberal audience feel positively reassured about their own compassion. What we have to find is a form that recognises our presence in the unfolding political drama, at the same time as understanding that we are not its protagonists. The Jungle, written by two young men who engaged deeply with the Calais refugees at their time of greatest need, offers that dramatic validity, fuelled by compassion, humanity and anger.
- The audience is in the thick of the action, seated at makeshift tables, representing the camp's Afghan café, on which the actors perform. The set makes it impossible to distance yourself from the raw emotion of the refugees' experience.
- The refugee characters are complemented by portrayals of British volunteers, all of whom are commendable, and all of whom are flawed. They are in some way our representatives on stage - particularly the gap-year Beth, who listens to several testimonies that deepen her sense of the people she meets. These characters make sense of our presence, which is far from participatory, but which they prevent from being voyeuristic or exploitative.
- The refugees are the characters at the heart of the narrative. It's interesting that the printed text ends with a scene for Beth - and this has clearly been cut in rehearsals so that the play ends with a direct address to the audience by Safi, a Syrian migrant, played with grace and dignity by Ammar Haj Ahmad. I don't know whether Ammar is himself a refugee - he is certainly a Syrian. The programme biographies rightly present all the actors in a purely professional way - but there is also a sense that some people are working with material they know intimately, and that they have brought a deep sense of their cultural selves to the production. This is vital - both for the artistic truth and the moral purpose of the project. Safi gets the last word, and it comes from a place of truth.
- There are a few moments when video screens serve to remind us of the political context as we have perceived it - through news reports. We see the little body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach. We see flashes of the Paris terror attacks. Towards the end, there is a report from a charity worker in Calais - a reminder, as our recent guest blog by John Comino-James pointed out, that the camp is still there. It's just that today, the refugees aren't allowed to build anything that could be regarded as permanent. They are imprisoned in a perpetual indeterminacy. These flashes of our usual "objective" perception of events serve to problematise still further the relationship between the performers and the audience, between the material and its spectators, between the refugees and British society.
It's been a rather wonderful year for us at Border Crossings, and I had thought that I would use this last blog post to review achievements and look forward. Well, we know about the achievements, and now I am looking forward - feeling empowered by this stunning piece of theatre further to develop our own ventures in the jungle of culture, policy, and human need.
May 2018 be a year of renewed clarity, commitment and creativity for us all.