Theatrical Empathy in Two Plays
What are the goals, the desired outcomes, the responsibilities, of plays that depict profound social injustices? Can the theatricalization of real-world suffering be justified as an act of empathy? A call to arms? An education? How does the inevitable aestheticization impact the story being told, especially when that story is derived from actual circumstances? And where does the theater audience—which at least in New York City is still primarily affluent—situate itself in relation to a work that depicts people in extremely different circumstances? These questions played out in fascinating ways in back-to-back viewings of two recent plays imported from London: Alexander Zeldin’s Love at the Park Avenue Armory, and Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle at St. Ann’s Warehouse, seen, respectively, on February 28 and March 1.
Zeldin, a protégé of the late, illustrious director Peter Brook, specializes in work that documents people overcome by systemic wrongs. He works through a combination of fieldwork and extended workshops which engage marginalized communities in both process and result. Love takes place in the common room of a London homeless shelter, a large space that looks like a church basement, ringed by numbered small rooms where individuals and families bunk, as well as a single toilet which they share. Natasha Jenkins’ faultless set speaks volumes in its inhospitality and its panopticon-like dissolving of privacy. About 75 audience seats are placed directly within the set, blurring the lines between the spectators and the action; Zeldin wants us to feel we are inhabiting the same space as the shelter’s residents. Likewise, Marc Williams’ brilliant, blunt lighting puts the actors under a cold glare. The houselights are kept up for most of the play, further weaving the audience into the stage space.
One side room is occupied by middle-aged Colin (Nick Holder) and his elderly mother, Barbara (Amelda Brown). Another by a young father, Dean (Alex Austin), his children Jason (Oliver Finnegan) and Paige (Amelia Finnegan at our performance), and his pregnant girlfriend Emma (Janet Etuk). A Sudanese woman, Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), awaiting the immigration of her children, occupies a third room, and Adnan (Naby Dakhli), a Syrian man who had been a primary school teacher, also resides at the shelter. In a half dozen vignettes over the course of 90 minutes, the play observes their activities and interactions in a measured, almost anti-dramatic fashion. There is no plot, but there are dozens of small dramas that rise and fall, some stemming from the universal (asking a surly teenager to turn down the music), some from the mundane (navigating a tiny communal refrigerator), some from the indignities of the situation (queuing for that shared toilet). There is inevitable and constant tension. Colin’s bulk and manner make him feel vaguely threatening, although it eventually becomes clear that he’s an overgrown child. Emma is terrified of giving birth while in the shelter and must deal with a recalcitrant healthcare system. Dean and Emma can barely afford food for their family and must sometimes do without. Barbara’s mild dementia and, more problematically, her incontinence, create humiliating situations precisely because of the degrading lack of private space.
Amid these dramas, there are also moments of humor and of grace. Despite their dire circumstances, Paige and Justin still put on their uniforms every morning and head off to school and practice for their upcoming cheesy Christmas pageant. Tharwa and Adnan, after initial wariness, discover they both speak Arabic and burst forth in a relieved, jubilant conversation, one that remains untranslated for the audience but whose gist is charmingly clear. And Barbara finds herself drawn to young Paige—a granddaughter she will never have.
At the root of the drama is the brutal social system that has entrapped the residents. Zeldin’s chief focus is the dehumanization of bureaucracy. Colin and Barbara have been in the shelter for over a year, even though British law requires them to receive housing within twelve weeks. Dean and Emma spend most of their days waiting in endless lines, or spending hours on hold with government agencies, trying to navigate a Kafkaesque system of interviews and applications, all calculated to make getting help as difficult as possible. Rules and processes seem capricious, designed to punish rather than to help. In just one maddening example, Dean’s benefits are cut because he missed a job appointment on the day his family was evicted from their home. The political message of Love is clear: the British government has abnegated its most basic responsibilities to its citizens.
Zeldin is careful to shy away from polemic, just as he rigorously avoids any sentimentality. His goal is to make you really feel what grinding, desperate poverty is like: the loss of control over your space and your time; the macro sense of fear and insecurity and the micro tensions and disagreements that wear you down. Zeldin makes the systemic personal. He creates visibility, forcing us to look at people and situations which usually make us avert our eyes. Love is the opposite of preachy. It merely presents the characters and their needs, like all good drama. The polemic speaks for itself.
Love is also truly a play, not a piece of documentary theater. It may have been developed from deep investigations into the world it’s depicting, but it is scripted and shaped and condensed and dramatized. There is rhythm to the play’s pacing, a powerful sense of tension, despite the restrained, unrushed approach. What we see is ultimately artifice: actors, a script, a set, stage lighting. And the cast, a mix of professionals and nonprofessionals, is magnificent. Brown, in particular, is heart-rending as Barbara, sinking into confusion and holding onto her ineffectual son as a lifeline, despite his inability to provide for her needs. At the end of the play, Zeldin breaks the fourth wall and has Barbara walk amongst the audience members who are seated within the set, reaching for their hands to support her. The simple request for, and receipt of, this kindness is a powerful evocation of the small acts of love that can make a difference. The play’s title is a plea and an acknowledgment that love can flourish anywhere, even in the most debasing circumstances.
One of the fleeting moments of grace in Love occurs when Adnan watches a scene from the movie Billy Elliot on his iPhone. It’s the climax of the film, when Billy appears in a production of Swan Lake. We hear the famous Tchaikovsky music—an improbable flash of ravishing beauty in a grim setting. Both the film and the marvelous stage adaptation of Billy Elliot were coincidentally directed by the protean British artist Stephen Daldry, who co-directed The Jungle, a work that exists in fascinating dialogue with Love. Both plays take a naturalistic approach to the struggles of marginalized groups, working outward from deep immersion in real-world situations toward theatrical manifestations of the people and situations in question. The Jungle grew out of research by artists who embedded themselves in the remarkable refugee camp that existed in Calais, France, from January 2015 through October 2016. At a particularly acute moment in the European migrant crisis, this encampment, next to the Channel Tunnel, drew thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East who were attempting to find asylum in the United Kingdom. A virtual city, dubbed the Jungle, eventually developed, with over 6,000 people living in makeshift shanty homes and frequenting shops, restaurants, schools, and community centers.
The theater artists Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson lived in this community for an extended period, working with the inhabitants to develop and produce works of theater as part of the Good Chance company, named after the camp residents’ oft-repeated, hopeful mantra that they would soon find a way to the UK. Murphy and Robertson ultimately developed and wrote The Jungle as a memorial for the camp, a tribute to its life force, a record of its essence. The play premiered at London’s Young Vic theater in 2017, transferred to the West End, and then toured to San Francisco and New York in 2018 and 2019. A revival at St. Ann’s Warehouse in early 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic and now returns to that enterprising theater three years later. Sadly, the play is as relevant as ever. The political and ecological upheavals of the last half decade have only intensified the refugee crisis. Millions of displaced persons now search for the stability and security that the West elusively promises but rarely fulfills.
Daldry and his co-director Justin Martin turn the theaters that house The Jungle into interactive environments, and St. Ann’s Warehouse is no exception. The audience enters via a replica of the Dome, a large, enclosed spherical space based on a spontaneously erected structure in the original Jungle encampment which acted as meeting space, art gallery, community center, and voting booth. The reconstructed Dome contains exhibits, crowd-sourced poetry, and other interactive elements that prepare the audience for entry into the central theatrical space, a replica of the now-legendary Afghan Café that flourished at the center of the Jungle camp. This restaurant was visited and reviewed by A. A. Gill, the food critic for the Sunday Times, who gave it four stars. As theatergoers, we are all patrons of the replicated Afghan Café, and some lucky few even got to sample some fresh-made bread.
The café is run by the wry Salar (the superb Ben Turner), whose ethical ambivalence resides at the emotional center of the play. The theatrical space takes the form of a series of catwalks on top of a dirt floor, surrounded by tables and benches where the playgoers sit, immersed to varying degrees within the social environment (Miriam Buether designed the set). As with Love, the lights are always fully on in both playing and spectator spheres (Jon Clark handled the expert lighting design), so that we feel fully integrated into the narrative space. And the impeccable sound design by Paul Arditti situates the dialogue within the inevitable ambient noises of a close-knit camp of several thousand people.
The Jungle is a much more traditional play than Love. Although it also grew out of a process of embedment within a specific social milieu, engaging nonprofessionals in a workshop process, it is more constructed, more subjectively theatrical than Zeldin’s deliberately objective work. There is more intervention from the writers and directors, more use of the tools of narratology, particularly dramatic irony. The play begins in medias res, depicting a moment of crisis for the camp. French policemen are about to invade, and the immigrant residents fear their improvised city will be destroyed. A young man, Norullah, is found dead by the side of the road. A British volunteer, Sam, realizes he has been betrayed by the French authorities. At this existential tipping point, the play pauses, and flashes back to eighteen months prior. A narrator emerges from the ensemble: Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), an affable Syrian intellectual from Aleppo. We now witness the complex, galvanizing story of the camp’s origins. And the rest of the three-hour play unfolds under our knowledge of what will come, placing us in an omniscient, heartbreaking position as we witness the hopeful yet doomed endeavors.
The refugees in the Jungle come primarily from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran, and the first order of business is creating a structure wherein these disparate cultures can peacefully coexist. The Jungle delves into the sometimes-prickly interactions among differing national and religious groups, forced to find common ground in extreme circumstances. That common ground is the fact that they needed to leave their beloved homelands. They had no choice. The life they are fleeing to in the UK may not be better than the life they left behind. In fact, in many ways it may be worse. But it will be safer. They will not die, which they would have had they not fled their lands of birth. They will forever live in a state of disassociation, of homelessness, but they will be alive, and that’s what matters. This tragic circumstance is at the core of The Jungle. The play is an elegy for lives unfulfilled, for the inevitable personal casualties of global disruption. “When does a place become a home?” This central question is articulated by multiple characters, and the hopeful but doomed yearning for an elusive home is the broken heart of the play.
All of this makes The Jungle sound depressing, but it is actually an amazingly vital and entertaining work. There is a freewheeling energy to the storytelling, an anarchic momentum that belies the play’s careful structure. Even more so than Love, The Jungle is a cannily constructed work of theater, playing on traditional tropes of character development and revelation, on surprise and reversal. There are many moments of joy and celebration, often accompanied by wonderful music and dance. This is not to downplay the play’s authenticity. The central refugee characters include the previously noted Salar, Safi, and Norullah (Twana Omer), the latter an endearingly hotheaded teen who finds his match in Okot (Rudolphe Mdlongwa), a young Sudanese who has undergone unspeakable terror in his journey to Calais. Okot’s monologue at the beginning of the second act, in which he outlines the multiple ways in which he “died” on his journey to freedom, is one of many powerful highlights.
The play’s central conflict comes with the arrival of a group of British volunteers who bring sincere intentions and, in some cases, problematic ideas to the Jungle. On the side of the angels is Paula (Julie Hesmondhalgh), a tough old survivor of multiple humanitarian crises who is focused on the practical tasks of arranging shelter and sanitation. The younger Beth (Liv Hill) establishes an English-language school in the camp and faces down a French policeman at the end of the first act in a thrilling confrontation. More problematically, Derek (Dominic Rowan) views everything through the lens of proletariat revolution, an approach that works theoretically but not always practically. And most egregiously, wealthy young toff Sam (Jonathan Case) succeeds at first in creating a housing plan but naively, and disastrously, misconstrues the intentions of the French authorities.
The precipitating crisis in the second act involves those authorities and their demands that the Jungle relocate half of its structures. The inhabitants must decide whether to accommodate or to resist. And they must also decide whether to trust the French government’s promises. The tragic results are a matter of public record; the Jungle was destroyed in 2016, and many of its inhabitants, including hundreds of children, simply disappeared. A few lucky denizens who worked with Good Chance have stayed with the project and are still members of the company of The Jungle. But the play is careful to clarify that the crisis has not waned. At the end of the evening, Safi steps forward to introduce a video from an on-the-ground reporter who speaks to the continued presence of refugees in northern France. On the evening we attended, March 1, 2023, the reporter began the broadcast by stating, “It’s March 2023 . . .”
The British characters are, of course, the entry point for the St. Ann’s Warehouse audience into the world of The Jungle. They reflect and refract our own sense of responsibility and hapless ineffectiveness. Throughout the play, the refugees challenge the volunteers, asking whether they can truly understand what is happening. It’s a tough question. The Jungle explores the fraught lines that separate sympathy, empathy, identification, and action. The play itself exists precisely within that place of lack-of-understanding—but draws its power from the galvanizing and stirring attempt to overcome that barrier. Sitting on the benches of the “Afghan Café” within St. Ann’s Warehouse, we are the British volunteers, implicated and involved, helpless and guilty.
The creators of The Jungle want to show you an entire world, a fully functioning city, that grew, existed, and was destroyed, all under our watch. They want us to bear witness, to struggle with the social, political, and ethical challenges wrought by the refugee crisis. They utilize catharsis to pull us into the emotional world of the play. And then surround the result with a message that is unambiguously political. The Jungle is a call to arms. The privileged audience is asked to witness and then act: vote, write, donate, volunteer, rally, protest, advocate. In Love, Zeldin’s project is less ambitious, but just as complicated: he wants us to observe. Love is calibrated to avoid direct statement. It merely presents behavior. The rest—the next steps, the action, the vote, the fundraising, even the emotion—is ours to fill in. The responsibility falls upon us.