Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy met eight years ago while studying English at Oxford and were soon writing their first play together—a surreal comedy set in a decrepit English country house. “And then we just never stopped, really,” says Robertson.
Three years ago, “the two Joes,” as they are known, were electrified by the images from the world’s refugee crises, which have seen 21.3 million displaced people on the move around the globe. “The basic questions that we were asking—who are these people, where are they coming from, why are they traveling, where do they want to get to?—weren’t being answered,” says Robertson, “and we made the—probably naive—decision to try and find out.”
When Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to the Syrian refugees, the duo set off for Munich but stopped on the way in Calais, France, at a settlement known as the Jungle, built on a desolate landfill site. “What we found was a proto-town of about 8,000 people from 30 different countries,” says Robertson. (At its height, some 15,000 people lived in the Jungle.) “They were building restaurants, cafés, mosques, churches. It was a terrible place—overseen by no NGO—but incredible, too.” Robertson and Murphy stayed for seven months.
“What inspired us as playwrights was their need to tell stories,” says Robertson. “Everyone we met wanted to talk—to share their story or explain that journey around campfires—but they also wanted to sing and dance. So many artistic traditions seemed to have been an absolute necessity.”
It was August, and Robertson and Murphy knew that the cold would soon set in, so they went home, raised ￡5,000 through the crowd-sourcing site JustGiving, and returned to the camp with a geodesic dome that soon became a theater—a safe, warm place, open to all, where stories could be told and workshops could be held every day. Once a week, a communal performance might showcase Afghan or Sudanese dance, a djembe concert, an Ethiopian circus, Iranian kung fu, or stand-up comedy. “When there were terrible things happening, like fires or riots, people would go to the Dome, as it was called, and talk and relax and watch a show,” says Robertson. “It became a really important civic space.”
When Robertson and Murphy decided that they needed to bear witness to their experiences, The Jungle—urgent, funny, heart-wrenching—was born. (Many of the performers are migrants; three were former Jungle residents.) “They have forged their stories, and they tell them every night,” says Robertson. The result is a timely and shattering theatrical experience that vividly suggests the fundamental human need to create home, community, and order out of chaos. Miriam Buether’s immersive set transports the theatergoer to an Afghan café that becomes a central gathering place, while costume designer Catherine Kodicek shopped street markets and thrift stores and tracked down clothing that had been donated to the camp. (Some of these pieces—with ski clothes, high heels, and even evening and wedding gowns among them—were also repurposed for the joyous Hope Walk fashion show, a collaboration between refugees and students of the International Fashion Academy Paris, shown during Paris Fashion Week.)
The acclaimed production, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, transferred from London’s Young Vic to the West End and opens this month at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. “We really wanted to make sure that everybody felt welcomed in this show—everybody who has an interest in what’s happening in the world today and who’s asking really difficult questions about how we can help, how we welcome people, what integration means,” says Robertson. “It’s incredibly galvanizing, really.”
Indeed: Many theatergoers have been compelled to get involved, and the company has partnered with Help Refugees (donate.helprefugees.org) to fund grassroots organizations all around Europe. “It’s very moving for us and for everyone in the company,” says Robertson. “It’s good to know that the art is not just reflecting on something that’s happened—it’s doing something concrete; it’s prompting action.”
In this story:Sittings Editor: Molly Haylor.