How can refugee stories be told in the theatre? Dr Glenda Cooper on using drama to explore humanitarian issues

Where was I when demolition started in the Jungle camp outside Calais housing 8,000 refugees? Well, I was perched on the edge, sipping a glass of wine. What should I have done?

By Glenda Cooper

Of course rather than actually being in France, I was attending one of the wildly successful performances of Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle which is currently playing at the Playhouse in London until 3 November. The play tells the story of the different communities who lived in the Jungle between March 2015 and February 2016 and the dreadful risks they took for their ‘good chance’ to reach the UK.


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★★★★★ ‘A priceless piece of theatre. Superb.’ (The Guardian) #WestEnd #Theatre

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It includes former refugees in its cast, it has rightly won plaudits for bringing such an important issue to the West End. And yet it also raises the question about how such stories can be tackled in theatre. How do you balance political activism with artistic creation?

Tackling the refugee crisis has been something that theatre companies are increasingly engaging in and made different choices both in the voices they use or the way they choose to stage it. Some have used real-life cases as the starting point for the drama. Some use refugees to perform. Some have used immersive theatre techniques.

Certainly many of the current theatrical productions are heavily based on real life experience, if fictionalised in part. Part of The Jungle’s power is the fact that you know this comes from Murphy and Robertson’s own experience running the Good Chance theatre dome in the camp itself. My own play Aid Memoir which opens at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington in October, and is performed at City University in November before going on tour, uses my own experience as a journalist and working for a major aid agency.

While The Jungle sites itself in the specific months leading up to the demolition of the camp and uses film of Alan Kurdi to locate it in real life, I chose to create a fictional refugee camp – set in England, run by African aid workers who allow the winner of Kenya’s Got Talent to run a celebrity appeal to save the UK refugees. By switching round the sufferers and the saviours, Aid Memoir directly tries to challenge the audience’s preconceptions around aid.

The challenge for any writer is to engage audiences with these issues, which let’s face it do not make for a relaxing evening. Part of this is telling engaging human stories – showing refugees and aid workers as real people – not just saints or archetypes.

The Jungle artistic team also have worked hard to make the audience feel part of the camp – by constructing a replica of the café there which was reviewed by the late AA Gill of the Sunday Times. Audience members sit on benches or stools while the actors perform around them. We are part of the action – and yet not quite, which is why I felt so uncomfortable, with my drink in hand as the boundaries blurred. Was I a watcher or a participant?

The Jungle drawing by @darkhouse_official on Instagram

Other theatres have gone even further by fully embracing immersive techniques – such as the Schauspielhaus Bochum theatre group in Germany, which in 2015 invited the public to crowd into a refrigerated truck to experience what refugees’ journeys are like. The event was described as a memorial to the 71 people, four of them children, who were found dead inside an abandoned lorry in Austria in August 2015.

For many, the most effective approach is to give refugees a voice and platform themselves. As well as the Jungle, Young Vic has put on the Queens of Syria – a version of Euripedes’ The Trojan Women, performed by refugees.  Meanwhile some of the most interesting work is being done outside London, in the north of England – where there has been a disproportionate number of new arrivals for local authorities to house.

The Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse) was named the UK’s first theatre of sanctuary in 2014 because of the extensive work it has done engaging refugees and asylum seekers, including a women’s choir, drama workshops and creative arts sessions with teenagers. This year’s community play Searching for the Heart of Leeds involved 200 stories from residents old and new. Meanwhile this year Sheffield hosted a five-day Migration Matters theatre and arts Festival to celebrate diversity, while Home in Manchester partnered with Community Arts North West to produce a programme for Refugee Week last June.

Does putting the refugee crisis on stage make a difference however? Can it change attitudes?  The easy criticisms to make are that privileged audiences feel absolved by watching such plays rather than getting involved in their communities to make a difference.  Or that there are more urgent ways to help refugees than do-good luvvies turning up to create a play.

But I think this is unfair. The plays being staged are being taken to different communities – not just West End London, but universities, community centres and festivals.  Murphy and Robertson’s play clearly has had a huge impact – garnering five-star reviews and breaking into the West End,  while earlier this year they were awarded the £25,000 Genesis prize to develop their work as mentors to refugee communities. Different stories are being told and retold in a way that helps us all understand a little better – and with understanding comes the possibility for action.

The Jungle by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson is at the Playhouse Theatre until 3 November. Tickets available at:

Aid Memoir by Glenda Cooper is at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, 2-6 October and City, University of London, 6 November (part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science). Tickets available at: and