The question of whether the arts are a luxury or a necessity has become one of the issues surrounding the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp just outside Calais.
Over 6000 displaced people from some of the most violent places in the world have gathered in the camp, a collection of makeshift shelters, home to people from over 20 different countries, from Syria to Eritrea to Pakistan.
The lack of organised infrastructure and aid effort has pushed the camp into a state of humanitarian crisis, according to a report conducted by the University of Birmingham with the medical charity Medecins du Monde. Despite the abject poverty and squalor amongst the mud, something of a self made community is emerging. Along the main street running through the camp, hairdressers, restaurants, schools, churches and mosques have sprung up; born out of a necessity or a hope to carry on as usual despite the horrific situations the residents find themselves in. A theatre has also been set up by the British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, supported by the Young Vic and The Royal Court theatres and many celebrated figures in British theatre including Tony award winning director Stephen Daldry, and artistic director of The Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone.
The Good Chance Theatre, which derives its name from the common debate amongst the refugees of the likelihood of crossing The Channel to Britain on a particular day, was set up to become a place where refugees from all the different countries come together to tell their stories.
Under the geodesic plastic dome of the theatre, a daily of roster of events is put on by volunteer artists. These include music lessons, dance and acting workshops, English lessons, and even workshops in specific arts as varied as circus or clowning. The Good Chance website declares they have hosted “poetry slams, stand up comedy nights, acoustic sets, theatre performance, rap battle”, providing escape from the rest of the camp’s dreariness.
The space has become especially important for the women and children living in the Jungle. Women are outnumbered one to ten within the camp and do not stray outside of their family tents for fear of becoming targets of sexual violence. Likewise, the camp is a dangerous place for the hundreds of unaccompanied minors who have found their way to Calais but have become separated from their family. These most vulnerable of the refugees find it difficult to make use of the paltry resources available, for they are seldom able to leave the safe spaces. they have created for themselves.
For this reason, many of the visiting artists have made it their mission to draw the women and children out of their constant fear and give them an outlet to express themselves. Recently, Afsaneh Gray, a playwright associated with The Gate theatre in Notting Hill, ran a workshop encouraging the young refugees to draw scenes from stories told to them in their childhood. In his powerful essay about Calais in The Guardian, Christopher Haydon describes some of the drawings by the young children, many featuring the emblems of the war that has been ongoing in their native Middle East for their entire lives; guns, Chinook helicopters, the threat of ISIS.
Everything from English lessons to clowning workshops take place in the theatre
The images, so far removed from the childhood these kids should’ve had indicates the burden of mental health problems in this population.
Most, if not all of the residents of the Jungle are suffering from the mental effects of brutal and close encounters with violence and war. In most cases, the refugees are not receiving adequate medical care for physical ailments, let alone support for mental health. The Good Chance Theatre and similar initiatives may be one of the most effective ways of tackling the issue. Art therapy has been shown to be effective in tackling post traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers, ameliorating aggressive and depressive tendencies. It is only reasonable to assume that the civilians fleeing from those war zones would benefit from the same therapies.
Not everyone has been convinced about the value of the Good Chance Theatre however. In particular, the performance of Hamlet by the touring ‘Globe to Globe’ arm of The Globe theatre became a lightning rod for controversy.
Critics argue that the residents of the Jungle camp are living in fear for their lives, often going without food, sharing one toilet between 75 people, completely without washing facilities; a theatre has no place in such an environment. Do they have a point? Should we be talking about food for the soul when there is a shortage of food for their bellies? Some might consider the idea of performing centuries old theatre to people in such destitute circumstances to be very definition of leftist ivory tower thinking; a peculiar brand of champagne socialism (“let them watch Shakespeare”). In Elliot Eisner’s words such people view the arts “as nice but not necessary’”.
Yet, it is clear that to the 300 refugees who watched the outdoor performance, it was a welcome break from the monotony of life in the Jungle. One refugee, speaking to The Guardian, said, “I’ve read the play in a book but never seen it… It is good to see theatre, … It is good to enjoy something”.
Throughout history, in times of despair, people have sought refuge and comfort in the arts.
Why else is Verdi performed to packed out audiences in the Donetsk Opera House as shellfire echoes around them? Why else, in the midst of the darkest days of the First World War, did British soldiers start publishing and distributing poems and satire on the front lines in the ‘Wipers Times’? Indeed, why else did our earliest ancestors start scrawling bison on the walls of Spanish caves when by rights they should have been more concerned with the woolly mammoths after them?
The idea that the arts are a luxury is a myth that should be readily and swiftly dispelled. The arts should not be sequestered away in gilted galleries, privy only to the privileged few. The arts more often than not are utterly necessary to survival and in maintaining humanity, and surviving in a desperate situation.
Imagine for a second that you had braved war, survived sinking boats, travelled across continents, when you finally arrived on safe land would you rather be rescued by the leftie ‘luvvies’ with their Hamlet and writing workshops, or the so called pragmatists who wouldn’t look beyond a meal a day and bare necessities? I know which one I’d choose.
The Good Chance theatre company and others like them are doing necessary and excellent work, but they may now face extinction. Though the theatre is still standing, the French authorities have begun demolishing the Jungle; churches and restaurants have already been bulldozed along with dozens of homes. Theoretically the residents, now twice displaced, should be rehoused in other parts of the city, but for many – especially the 500 unaccompanied minors – the situation remains precarious
It is a striking indictment of European politics that the people who have gone to extraordinary lengths to flee violence and terror from their own countries find themselves on the shores of one of the richest countries in the world still fearing for their security.
Despite all odds, in face of European governments that oscillate between barely acknowledging the plight of the refugees and openly denying their right to seek refuge, the men, women and children who have found their way to Calais are starting to rebuild their lives, but they need our help.
As with most things, governments are far behind the mentality of the citizens, but it is time that the powers-that-be in Europe recognise the displaced people, not as “a bunch of migrants” as David Cameron so charmingly termed them, but as human beings, just like us, deserving of shelter, food, warmth, and yes, even beauty.
Find out more about donating or volunteering at goodchance.org.uk