Why does it feel radical listening to someone speak?: Interview with Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson

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Why does it feel radical listening to someone speak?: Interview with Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson

Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy, playwrights and founders of Good Chance Theatre, talk "The Jungle", life in Calais, social change, and the necessity of failure

We walked around and there was music playing, and whenever you’d met someone they’d show you pictures of their journeys. The cast of "The Jungle", Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson met while at University in Oxford. Both playwrights, they travelled to Calais, France together to volunteer in the makeshift refugee camp that became known as "the jungle". The "Joes" set up a theatre dome there that hosted performance nights named The Hope Show, and supported locals in making their art and finding their voice. Evacuated with the rest of the camp, they wrote The Jungle, inspired by all they experienced and discovered.

The Jungle opened at Young Vic Theatre in December 2017 to rave reviews. Following a sold-out run, it transferred to the West End's Playhouse Theatre but seems a world away from your regular West End setting – the stage and stalls turned into an Afghan restaurant.

The somewhat immersive play truly makes you feel like you're there, filled with music and sadness, love, hopefulness and hopelessness. You can smell the ground as you enter "the restaurant", actors may try to sell you rolling papers, and you might even get to taste some Afghan bread. A few of the cast members are indeed refugees who met Robertson and Murphy in Calais, and as the entire cast, are simply phenomenal.

With their theatre production company, Good Chance Theatre, the Joes also built a theatre dome in Paris, resurfacing The Hope Show to continue their art by and for refugees in France as well. The company also takes an active approach, listening to and supporting creative enterprises, and they recently released an album called Sounds of Refuge which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios.

You arrived in Calais and wanted to write about the situation, how did you go about listening to stories and how much creative license did you use?

Murphy: “We didn’t really have an idea wanting to write about that situation, we knew nothing about it. We got to know people on a very personal level, and by the time we left the jungle we had a sense that we wanted to write about it. The process then was balancing that need to represent those relationships with the need to represent the broader issues of the jungle. That meant certain characters standing for their country, as representatives almost.

“We had to be quite judicious in choices that we made, in some cases bringing together lots of different stories into one character, that means refugees and it also means British volunteers. So there’s a bit of creative license, but it all remains true to what the place was.”

"I suppose living there everyday for seven months meant kind of becoming a part of the story." Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson in rehearsals for "The Jungle", Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Robertson: “Our experience when we arrived was finding that a lot of people were going there with the intention of collecting stories, whether they were journalists, or filmmakers, or anthropologists, or artists taking photographs for paintings…

"As we got to know people we realised that collecting stories wasn’t new along their journey, so their answers were more and more prepared. But what we found among people we met was actually a different kind of storytelling, a much more immediate, natural one, born of the intensity of that situation.

“We walked around and there was music playing, and whenever you’d met someone they’d show you pictures of their journeys. It felt like there was a way of creating something allowing people the space and freedom to tell their stories in the way they wanted to. It wasn’t for an outside audience; it was actually just to each other.

"That was how the theatre was born I guess. It almost goes against that idea of taking and then leaving. The nights that we had in the theatre there, there were British volunteers, or French volunteers, but by and large the audience were residents of the camp. Back then I don’t think we felt we had the right to take stories.

"I suppose living there everyday for seven months meant kind of becoming a part of the story [laughs]. Once we were evicted, alongside people like Mohamed [Sarrar, actor and musician], Moein [Ghobsheh, actor] and our friends from the jungle, we felt we do have the right to tell that story.”

When you arrived as two, white, British guys, were you stared at?

Murphy: “[laughs] Yes definitely. But I think by the time we’d arrived, which was relatively early, but you know, we weren’t there at the beginning of the place itself, there had been a lot of people doing what we were doing, coming to try to understand or to help. So I think it was a very normal sight. British folk or French folk rocking up.”

When the British volunteer arrives in the play it seems to be a parody of that…

Murphy: “Yeah! That sequence is a satirical section of this idea of wanting to help and be generous, from a position of relative power and privilege to be able to do that. The terms of phrase that people use when they’re coming from that position always struck us and we recognised in ourselves as something that was, you know, [laughs] absurd often!”

"A lot of people helped me when I was there! And they were residents, refugees." The cast of "The Jungle", Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Robertson: “I think the play engages with who has the right to help, and what it is to help, and popular modern ideas about privilege and power. Which, I think, every discussion of this subject matter has to face head on. But I think in the discourse around that, there’s actually something quite conservative about it sometimes.

“You look at Calais, and what people actually say, it is them and us. But it is actually much more complicated. The first guys we met were from Kuwait, they were Bedouin people. They’d arrived in the place where ‘yes, there were these Brits and some French people,’ but they were also in a place with Egyptians and Sudanese people, and people from Afghanistan and Somalia, and Yemen… They were surrounded by these new cultures. The volunteers were just one aspect of that.”

There is a tendency to just divide Calais into ‘refugees’ and ‘volunteers’.

Robertson: “Yeah. But even that boundary is quite blurred, as we hope we represent in the play. Some refugees in the camp took really important leadership roles. How food was delivered, how donations would be distributed. They set up, not just businesses like the restaurant, which was a really important community space, but also distribution points, community kitchens.

“Even who’s helping was also really blurred. A lot of people helped me when I was there! And they were residents, refugees.”

Murphy: “Within the volunteers, and the refugees, there were people who wanted this place to continue. To build it into something that was a viable, small, society. And within the people who stood opposed to that idea, there were those who wanted to get rid of it by dealing with big legal issues, to give the right to people to be outside of that situation. Then there were people who were focusing on individuals… It was such a huge variety of viewpoints.”

Robertson: “This was part of our naivety when we arrived. Kuwait is one of the richest countries in the world, so why… And then you meet Saad who says ‘I’ve got two children, I’ve got a wife. I’m a Bedouin person from Kuwait. We’ve been on that land for centuries, but in the 90’s there was a series of terrorist attacks and the Bedouin people were kinda scapegoated for that. Now we have no rights to passports or education or employment,’ just how complex the issues were. And that echoed with all the 25 other nationalities.”

"Things aren’t messy enough half of the time." The cast of "The Jungle", Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Good Chance Theatre makes a point of listening to every creative idea people come up with. Other than The Jungle and your work in Calais, Good Chance also recorded an album…

Murphy: “There are three basic strands to what we do now, one is that we build theatre domes in places that we feel it’s really important to bring different communities together. The next is that we make productions. Then the third, we call it the The Good Chance Ensemble, it’s about supporting brilliant artists, most are refugees who’ve recently arrived in this country. They’re just brilliant and talented. With a bit of support, they will be happily creating brilliant things and they will go on to be very important voices in our society.”

Robertson: “There is a beautiful overlap between those three. Mohamed [Sarrar], who’s in The Jungle, we first met him in the jungle, he started a band, performed every night, wrote a song called Abbas Hallas, performed that in The Hope Show in Calais, and it is now in the production.

“We started working with him when we first thought it’s important to tell this story. He’s a really essential part of the production and made that album, and then in Paris earlier this year and with his travel documents, he returned to France and volunteered in the dome with people who’ve just arrived. He sang in the dome in Paris in a very different context to Calais, but similar in many ways. Just that feeling of full circle, supporting each other, it’s really profound I think.”

Murphy: “We think it’s really important, like you said, we’re very open to ideas. We really want to be sure that people know that they can come to us to chat and to talk about things that they want to make. We sometimes think that it’s quite formal, the process of making things in this country. And it’s resource-based. We want to battle against that ethos. We want to make sure that we’re open.”

Robertson: “I think that was born in the jungle. There was a need for a space of safety, reflection and excitement, and fun, and magic. And that was the dome. People would rock up and say, ‘I wanna do a stand up comedy night.’ Yasin [Moradi, actor] came and said he’s in the Iranian kung fu team and wants to teach kung fu. Majid [Adin, visual artist] came and said he needs to paint. Having that infrastructure around you, then letting that artist do what they need to do.”

Murphy: “Which means failure some of the time. Things aren’t messy enough half of the time. Sometimes things are just too solid. Like when you go to see a piece of theatre and you think, ‘this is obviously good, but not excitingly, because nothing’s going wrong. Nothing seems to be happening.’”

Quite similar to Beckett’s quote “fail again. Fail better”.

Murphy: “[laughs] Yes exactly!”

Robertson: “Take two steps forward, one step to the right!”

Murphy: “We’re bettering Beckett [laughs].”

Robertson: “[laughs] Don’t say that!”

"There are incredible forces, on the right and on the left, which, for different reasons, are intent on closing down discussion." The cast of "The Jungle", Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Can theatre bring social change?

Robertson: “I think there’s a mistake in the logic of ‘can theatre change anything.’ Seeing from the work that Good Chance is doing in places like Paris, theatre doesn’t bring about change – it is change.

“When Mohamed [Sarrar] first arrived he was quiet, suspicious of all these weird people doing drama games. Within five or six weeks, he started working with this French actor, and he’d written this piece of writing in Arabic. The moment he performed in that dome with a monologue about his journey, about his hopes, about France… It was greater than any Shakespearean soliloquy I’ve ever heard.

“That is change. And that man now, he’s just soaring. He’s making great work, creating connections in France. Why does it feel radical listening to someone speak? The fact it does means something is changing.”

Murphy: “I think sometimes playwrights can make the mistake of projecting an idea they believe that the audience should think, and agree with, a little too much. I think that theatre, in its heart, is about bringing lots of different people into the same space, and into contact with a story, letting people make up their own minds. I think that’s a much more powerful process than any kind of story that is singular in its message.

“Telling stories, making sure they reach into unexpected areas, and juxtapose themselves, and don’t know what they mean sometimes; aware of the complications of the discussion, and revel in that.”

What’s next?

Murphy: “Just keep writing, I think!”

Robertson: “We’re increasingly interested in stories that speak of the relationships we share with people from all around the world. I feel increasingly atomised… So I keep being drawn to these stories of, I suppose, international solidarity.”

Murphy: “Yes. But I think that the key to us moving forward is making sure that these stories are specific. As soon as your desire is to reach across the world, the danger is you’re becoming too general, and the story becomes less emotional.”

So what’s in the way of solidarity?

Robertson: “It seems to me there are incredible forces, on the right and on the left, which, for different reasons, are intent on closing down discussion and attempts at reconciliation and understanding. I think the world is more divided than it’s been in a long time. We talked about who has the right to tell a story, and I think people who are attempting to make this kind of reconciliation are scared of what they can and can’t say.

"I suppose that’s what The Jungle is trying to do. It goes, ‘let’s admit that it’s really hard to find consensus. Let’s admit that it’s really hard to try to live together,' if that’s the first line in the conversation then we might get further than we do at the moment. Because if we can all agree on one thing, that it’s really hard to live together, if we can share that one thing, then there’s hope.”

To donate, volunteer, or just to get more information, visit goodchance.org.uk

The Jungle is on until 3 November at Playhouse Theatre

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Tags: Good Chance, Joe Murphy, Joe Robertson, Playhouse Theatre, The Jungle, Young Vic
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