The refugee camp in Calais – or The Jungle as it is universally known by its inhabitants and by the volunteers who work there – is a mass of contradictions. Located on the edge of one of the richest nations on earth, it is a ramshackle slum that seems to be under constant threat of being swallowed by the toxic, sticky mud that oozes between the tents and huts that house the approximately 6000 human beings that live there. It is populated by people who have fled some of the most violent places on earth and who now lived squashed up against one another; yet it is, for the most part, a surprisingly calm place. Despite being divided by language, history and geography, these different nationalities – Afghans, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Iranians, Kurds, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Kuwaitis, and others treat each other with a tolerance that is notably lacking in the country that they are all desperate to get to – Britain.
And here is another contradiction – despite how bleak the place feels on the surface, there is a seam of hope that runs through everything. Sure, the living conditions maybe rudimentary at best, but that hasn’t stopped a whole high street springing up in the middle of the camp – with mosques, churches, well stocked shops, restaurants and even hairdressers. The camp may be far from the national grid but everyone can still keep their phone charged – by plugging it in to one of the bicycles that have been turned in to pedal powered generators. And despite the fact that everyone looks like they are quite literally stuck in the mud, the belief that tonight might be the night when they can get on to a lorry that is bound for Dover drives everything they do. When I was first there, in early January, I walked in to the camp one morning and was greeted by two Afghan men I had not met before: “hello! Where are you from?” they asked. When I told them I was from the UK they smiled and said “ah yes! Last night we had no luck, but maybe tonight!”
That is how the residents of the Jungle assess their luck each day – they either have “no chance or good chance” of getting across the border. So it seemed obvious to Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson – the two remarkable young guys who have set up a theatre in the camp – that they should christen their domelike performance space, the “Good Chance Theatre”. The story of this theatre has been widely reported in the press – it has a remarkable range of backers from individuals like Stephen Daldry and Sonia Friedman to institutions like the Young Vic and the Royal Court. And a cynic might say that this is all little more than a way that some famous people have found to make themselves feel good off the back of other people’s suffering.
But that cynic has certainly never been to the camp or met the Joes or any of the number of refugees who go to the theatre every day. The space itself is a humble affair – a large geodesic dome with a wooden floor – decorated with paintings and drawings that have been made by the inhabitants of the camp. Each day it hosts a range of events – karate classes, singing, writing and acting workshops and, more recently, boisterous games of volleyball. On many nights, performances are given – shows that have been devised and rehearsed throughout the week. These are shared with an audience made up of a mixture of the theatre’s regular participants and curious outsiders who may never have entered the dome before.
There is a creative chaos that characterises the atmosphere in the space. The Gate has brought a group of artists out this week to work with the camp’s inhabitants and as our associate director Tinu Craig led a singing workshop, she found herself competing against a boy riding through the space on his bike and some young men in the corner listening to loud Afghani music on their phone. But you know what? That is a good thing. The dome is a place for creativity certainly, but it is also a refuge from the weather – a public place where people can hang out in a camp where there is nothing to do. And when the creative activity in the middle of the room starts looking interesting, well, maybe the boy might get off his bike and join in. (In fact he did, for a bit, before getting back on his bike and cycling off.)
The rhythm of this space takes some adjusting to. In the professional theatre in the UK we are used to rehearsal spaces being calm, focussed environments – the rehearsal room has a certain sanctity that is vital if good work is going to be made. But in the Jungle it is our job as theatre makers to adjust to a new approach – one where the residents demonstrate their ownership of the space and the work it makes by literally treating it like it is their own home – indeed, at the moment, it is the closest thing that many people here have to a home.
The most valuable creative journeys can be made when the participants are allowed to take the lead. After the singing, another one of our artists, the playwright Afsaneh Gray began a writing workshop. The language barrier is obviously a big issue, so she began by asking everyone to draw pictures of stories they remembered from their childhood – perhaps a fairy tale. (And its worth bearing in mind that for many of the camp’s inhabitants childhood is not a distant memory but a daily reality – hundreds of the people here are under eighteen. Many of the young guys in the theatre are teenage boys who have no parents or family members with them.)
This exercise brought about a moment of calm – half a dozen young Afghanis drawing pictures with incredible care and focus. After a while, it became evident that they were not quite doing as asked – instead of drawing pictures of stories they remembered from childhood, they were drawing pictures of their homes – the places they grew up. One picture featured a house, an outline of a hand in the colours of the Afghan flag, some trees with the figure of a person in the middle of them, and then, in the centre of the picture, a helicopter with twin rotor blades – a Chinook. I asked him about this and he pointed to the figure in the trees and said “Daesh” (the local, derogatory word for ISIS) and he pointed at the helicopter and said “he is bombing Daesh”. So perhaps they were doing exactly as asked – but their stories of childhood are a far cry from Little Red Riding Hood.
This may be the last week of the theatre’s life. The French authorities have said that in the next few days eviction notices will be served and they will bulldoze the southern part of the camp. In the last few weeks they have already levelled swathes of the camp’s surroundings. When I was here in January there were tents spread out right up to the main entrance under the nearby motorway. (An area that became famous when Banksy paid a visit to paint a mural.) Now, that whole stretch is a linear scar of flattened earth.
Yet here is another paradox: as the Joes point out, removing the camp is not, necessarily, an intrinsically bad thing. No human beings should have to live like this – especially not in one of the richest countries in the world. If the French and British governments commit, properly, to helping and rehousing the people in the camp then of course it should be removed. But the big question is: will they do this? The French want to disperse people around Northern France – grant them asylum and let them get on with it. But most of the inhabitants are still desperate to get to the UK – where many of them have family. As an interim measure the French authorities have brought in a large number of shipping containers – which each have bunks for twelve people. They are heated but do not yet have running water. To get access to one you have to agree to be finger printed – but in doing so, you make it almost certain that you will never be able to claim asylum in the UK. So you have to make the choice to give up on the dream that you have travelled thousands of dangerous miles to achieve.
And here is another problem – if you are an unaccompanied minor, well, you are not allowed to stay in the containers. So for the five hundred or so children in the camp there is no hope – if it gets demolished, where are they going to go? It is a humanitarian catastrophe that these children, hundreds of them, are being so neglected by the British and French governments. Many of them are traumatised – one Afghan boy I met, Narullah, who is 17 (we think) saw his school bombed and father killed, by the Taliban. He is a sweet lad, but badly behaved – always pushing the limit of what he is allowed to do. It’s petty stuff mainly: standing dangerously close to the gas heater, spray painting the walls etc. But if the state doesn’t care for him now, when he is still legally a minor, what on earth will happen to him when he gets to eighteen and loses even the theoretical protection that is his current right?
This week, the Joes are arranging for all of the children in the camp to be brought to the theatre – they will be given new shoes and a photograph of all of them will be taken – to try and show the wider public the faces of these lost kids. The volunteers in the camp will also carry out a census – getting the names, ages, places of origin of all these young people. Let’s note, for a moment, that these volunteers are – as the Joes put it – all amateurs. They have no training in looking after refugees or running a camp like this. This is the kind of thing that should be done by professionals – but, apart from a small contingent from Medecins Sans Frontieres, there are none here. No UN or Red Cross, (as they can only operate in a country when they have been formally invited to do so) and, except for the police, no French or British government presence either.
No one. And five hundred kids. I’m sitting on the Euorstar from Calais as I write this – we have arrived at St Pancras and yet I am so angry that I can’t bring myself to get up before I’ve finished. I’m trying not to cry. These are the ‘bunch of migrants’ that David Cameron recently referred to. Children who have fled staggering violence and who now live in squalor only a few miles from the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris.
Some have asked what good a performance space can do in a refugee camp – don't the people there need more important things like food, clean water and shelter? Do they really need a theatre? Well my answer to this is an unequivocal yes. There is no zero sum game between art and sustenance. Not only can a theatre space be a perfect shelter indeed from a passing hail storm (of which there were two yesterday) but it can provide vital emotional shelter as well. When you have nothing to do all day but try to avoid thinking about the horrors of your recent past, what better than to go somewhere where you can begin to process those experiences in a safe space? Or where you can escape from them for a moment in song and feel the glorious rush of performing for your friends and neighbours and being applauded for your efforts? Majid – a taxi driver from Sudan and a regular visitor to the theatre has discovered that he really is an extremely good actor – his work is subtle and detailed. And that, surely, has to provide him with at least a sliver of hope.
Yet between the British funded razor wire fences on one side and the French riot police on the other, the UK and French governments have turned the Jungle into a vacuum of their own moral authority. The only thing currently filling that vacuum are the various volunteer organisations that have popped up – at the heart of which sits the theatre that Joe and Joe built. For many of the camp's residents, Good Chance may be the only chance they have.