From Calais to London and Paris: UK writers give new life to refugees’ theatre

When the tent in Calais that housed the Good Chance Theatre came down in the spring of last year, as the refugee camp known as “the Jungle” was cleared, the two 25-year-old British playwrights who set it up pledged that the story would not finish there. “We know it is not the end,” Joe Murphy told the Observer last year.

This weekend, sure enough, a new future is dawning. Not only has The Jungle, the challenging play that Murphy wrote with Joe Robertson just opened in London to admiring reviews, but “the Joes” have also revealed that their pop-up refugee theatre – visited by leading British actors such as Jude Law, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch – is to rise again next month, this time in Paris.

“This is a really exciting development for us,” said Murphy this weekend. “We hope this can become a model: a place in a city for new people to find each other and come together.”

A big dome and a little dome – two temporary geodesic structures – are to go up on 23 January for an initial 10 weeks next to the Paris refugee reception site known as La Bulle, or “the Bubble”. Situated in the north of the city, the surrounding camp has welcomed close to 20,000 people since it was opened by the French charity Emmaüs Solidarité almost a year ago, on the suggestion of the mayor, Anne Hidalgo.

From next month, at the invitation of “the Joes”, three Paris-based curators will work on a programme of entertainment that will bring in all forms of art. “The curators will be running it alongside the refugees, and they are Elisa Giovannetti, who we have worked with before; Vincent Mangado of the Théâtre du Soleil, who I think we share a vision with; and Jack Ellis, a British actor who lives out there,” said Murphy.

Joe Robertson, left, and Joe Murphy at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Photograph: David M. Benett/Getty Images

“What we are trying to achieve is a venue that can be autonomous,” he adds. While the pair will be there putting on shows, “we feel it is very important that it can exist beyond us”.

The Hope Show, a variety evening which became one of the most popular communal events in the Calais camp, will also be back each Saturday night and, importantly, is open to all Parisians. “That is a crucial element for us,” said Robertson. “The camp is a mile and a half from the centre of Paris, but it might as well be another planet, so it is vital we open it to everyone, from our partners in the corporate world to people from the world of fashion.”

The original 11-metre dome in Calais, named “Good Chance” after the slang phrase used in the camp for finding a way to get to Britain, was taken down when the French authorities moved in to raze part of the settlement in March 2016. The theatre had been made legally exempt from the clearance, but the facility was pointless without its audience.

At the time Robertson described his experience in Calais running the Good Chance as “at once the worst time and the very best time”.

The new Paris theatre is the result of a partnership with Emmaüs Solidarité that will allow it to offer a creative space for the use of refugees and migrants, who now reportedly arrive in Paris at a rate of between 80 and 100 a day.

Robertson, from Hull, met Murphy, who is from Leeds, when they were both at university in Oxford. Writing for the stage together, they went on to work on director Stephen Daldry’s 2014 film Trash, about poverty in Brazil. They first travelled to the camp together in 2015, staying for six months. It is the naivety of their initial reaction to the community they saw around them that is at the centre of their new play, The Jungle.

Now Daldry, fresh from launching season two of his hit television show The Crown, is directing The Jungle, alongside Justin Martin, who also worked on The Crown. A piece of immersive theatre that attempts to recreate the camp for the audience, the play was commissioned by the National Theatre and is performed with a vast refugee cast at the nearby Young Vic.

Critics have applauded the ambition of Daldry, Martin and the Joes. The verdict of the critic on review site The Arts Desk was that The Jungle “is done with awesome integrity and total commitment”.

Set in a replica of one of the camp’s Afghan restaurants, it features several scenes ridiculing well-intentioned western volunteers and does not offer simple solutions. “From the beginning we faced questions about who we think we are to come and help,” said Robertson. “We are very conscious that we are British.”

“It was often the first question in fact,” added Murphy. “Now, as well as launching the Paris Good Chance, we will be working with refugee artists in Britain, to help them develop their new lives.”

“Clearly the refugee crisis cannot be solved by any one country,” said Robertson, “but it is the responsibility of artists to create new links between people.”

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