In all the #metoo conversation happening over the past few weeks, three words have stuck. Or maybe it’s not that they’ve stuck but that they keep ricocheting around my head, a kind of accusation. They’re from the Vicky Featherstone interview with the Guardian, the bit where she says: “We all knew.” Asked to clarify, she explains: “I knew that pretty much every single woman I know had suffered sexual harassment in her life. I knew that, and I’d just accepted that. I’m hardwired to accept it. I’m a feminist, and when I talk about it, it shocks me. But I had literally accepted it, like I accept that we have a class system. I’d accepted it like I accept that there are homeless people. And that’s just bizarre – but it’s what we’ve done. And then suddenly someone speaks out, and you start to think, why are we as a society accepting of this situation?”
I’ve reprinted it in full, even though I’d wager anyone reading this also read that, because it bears repeating.
We all knew.
We’re hardwired to accept.
What people in the UK might or might not know about the Calais refugee camp that mushroomed over 2015, was part-dismantled in March 2016 and finally razed in October 2016, is a recurring question in The Jungle. People in the UK don’t know what is happening here, an Eritrean woman says: if they did, maybe the border would open. A Sudanese man tells a British volunteer the harrowing story of his escape across the Sahara, Libya, the Mediterranean, and a Syrian man comments: “You have heard this story before. A thousand times, I am sure.” More than once, another British volunteer talks about “a law called Dublin III”, which “gives all unaccompanied children who have family in Europe the right to be reunited with them”; a law that “Theresa darling buds of fucking May” has repeatedly flouted. And yet, a fresh-from-Eton British volunteer has the gall to say that this, the Jungle, “would never happen in Britain”, like he knows we’re better than that.
We, the British, are not better than that.
It’s one of the strongest points of Joe Murpy and Joe Robertson’s script for The Jungle that the British volunteers come off so warty. They have Derek, the man from Reading, self-importantly introduce “the first democratic meeting in the Jungle” directly after its umpteenth council meeting of elders and community leaders. Beth, a well-meaning 18-year-old avoiding university, repeatedly acts as though she’s old enough to be the mother of a refugee with only a year’s less life on him but several lifetimes’ more experience: that’s privilege for you. Sam, an Etonian, is constantly having his ignorance of Middle Eastern history and language exposed; the way he divides up the camp into quadrants, ignoring the national lines that the refugees themselves have settled naturally, is a bitterly ironic mirror of the way in which Britain and France colluded to carve up the Middle East in the early 20th century. “I know what British are like,” says Salar, owner of the Afghan shack restaurant in which the play is romantically set. “They go to places they don’t belong and tell people what to do.”
Murphy and Robertson make the volunteers – particularly Beth – the conduit for a lot of information: detailed descriptions of how people might attempt the Channel crossing to the UK, how the smuggling system works, what it might have taken to get them even this far. It’s the duo’s first play, so this has the feel of clunky exposition – and at the same time, it doesn’t. Because we in the audience know, and we don’t know. I spent a lot of time earlier this year researching the October destruction of the refugee camp, the ways in which it was reported in UK news media and how that differed from eye-witness volunteer accounts that unfolded on twitter. So I know quite a lot, and also the play surprised me, informed me.
But what can it do more than that? Because let’s face it, when it comes to the refugee crisis, that moment of someone speaking out has happened again and again and again. Or maybe it wasn’t speaking: maybe it was a photograph, of a small round-limbed boy lying face down in the sand. The death of Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey in September 2015 is – within the timeline of the play – the event that launches so many British volunteers to make the reverse journey to help out in Calais. It’s another kind of unwitting insult, this ease with which they travel, and repeatedly through the play the refugees want to know: what are you doing here? What do you want? We, who have nothing, what can we give you now? And the French have another, more difficult question: what if everything the British are doing to help is actually hurting, because it encourages more people to make this appalling journey, and instills them with false hope?
If Beth is the play’s innocent heart, she is also the person who speaks out most forcefully, desperately, about the apparent impossibility of moving from acceptance of the situation to effecting actual change. Taking as her starting point a Spectator article in which journalist James Bartholomew dismissed concern for the lives and humanity of refugees as “virtue signalling”, she casts a jaundiced gaze at the UK parliament and declares that all its laws are the actual virtue signal. Let’s not forget that as Murphy and Richardson have been writing the play, all human rights laws enshrined by EU treaty have been under threat, and no one yet knows what will replace them. Knowing the Tories as we do, the signs aren’t looking good.
But again, the same question: what more can this play do, is it doing, than giving people a bloody good night out? Because it is a good night out: I went in seething with misgivings, that these two young men who studied at Oxford had landed such a major commission for their first play, that they were capitalising on their undoubtedly dedicated and worthwhile volunteering experiences in a way that the refugees whose stories they are telling are unable to do, that the production (directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin) would be full of **actors** doing heartfelt **acting**; and I came out impressed by the rigour of conscience, having laughed with and fretted for the characters, and genuinely been caught up in the energy of argument and desire that seethes in every moment. It’s a good night out – and the trouble is, no one involved knows what to do with that.
The published text ends in a completely different way from the performance, so I can’t quote any of this accurately, but at the end Safi, the beguiling Syrian narrator, who manages to escape to the UK only to end up trapped in the asylum system, with no sense of community and speaking less English than he spoke in Calais, pleads for help before introducing a video in which a volunteer from Help Refugees describes the situation in Calais now. The camp no longer exists but people are still arriving, there are still unaccompanied minors there, the desperation to reach the UK persists, and the police crackdowns are more violent than ever. But neither the character nor the real person ask for anything in particular: not for donations, not for letters to an MP. It’s as if they know – as if all of us in the room know – that it won’t make any difference. Because we, the British public, have accepted that there is a refugee crisis, even though we have barely a fraction of the refugee population of other countries around the world, just like we’ve accepted the class system and homelessness. It is the backdrop to our privilege: the privilege to go out to nice theatres, and go home from there to a roof and a safe bed. We’re hardwired, by capitalism, to accept the inequality. Even as we ask, repeatedly, loudly, why.
The Jungle is on at Young Vic Theatre until 9th January, 2018. Book tickets here.