Art + Aid: The Good Chance Theatre, Calais

Despite suffering some criticism, Good Chance was soon championed by some of the more liberal newspapers. We caught up with the Joes to hear about how they forged a reputation on their good-natured ability to challenge assumption.

a balmy Tuesday evening, sitting around one of the Young
Vic’s street-side tables, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, founders of
the Good
theatre in Calais, are talking about clichés. At least
they’re trying to; they keep being interrupted by bow-tied,
bowler-hatted folk after a lighter. Graciously, Robertson sparks up
the proffered rollie before returning to the conversation at hand.
“Do you think that we’re talking in clichés?” It’s part
question, part provocation.

Shortly after graduating, the playwrights (who met at Oxford)
erected an enormous, white, honeycomb-shaped dome in the middle of
the notorious refugee camp in Calais that is commonly known as The
Jungle. Here they ran workshops, performed plays and held riotous
parties on Saturday nights. Quickly, the men became closely
acquainted with their regular clientele, despite being unable to
verbally communicate. They became masters of mime. They had moments
of exaltation, sadness and intense boredom too. So how, then, can
they compress the intensity of their experience into a conversation
with me, more accustomed to the Cut than Calais, without speaking
in clichés?

They can’t, is their answer. But they are keen to point out that
clichés are no bad thing. It might seem like a strange stance for
two writers to adopt, but the Joes have forged a reputation on
their good-natured ability to challenge assumption.

When the pair first arrived at the camp, they were offered food
and rugs, and found themselves stripped of a set of conceptions and
cynicisms they didn’t even know they had. “We realised then that
these conceptions are everywhere. And the cliché is that it was
then we started talking in clichés.” Robertson offers an example:
“Expression is a human right. Eighteen months ago, we would have
gone ‘what the fuck are we on about? Of course expression is a
human right.'” But, in a camp whose inhabitants have been rendered
nearly voiceless, expression and human rights are abstract terms.
“In this context, it actually needs saying, and people need it in

The couples’ decision to go to Calais was not pre-planned. They
had just finished working on a play in London and the lull in their
schedule coincided with the intensifying of the refugee crisis.
They packed their bags, intending to travel to Munich. On arriving
at Calais, they stopped. It was like a city, populated by thousands
of people, all sectioned into microcosmic echoes of their
communities back home. “There were churches and mosques,” recalls
Murphy. “There was a women’s and children’s centre. There were all
these individual places for particular denominations of people to
go, and no place where everyone could go.” Their solution: a

They went home and came back with an enormous white dome.
Practical difficulties? No, that was the easiest part, they say.
Within minutes of arriving back in Calais they were surrounded by
crowds of people, many trained engineers and technicians who,
pointing and shouting, deftly built their theatre.

The main challenge they faced was ideological. Their fundamental
objective was to act as a positive force in a situation that was
being repeatedly distorted by a visceral negativity, the wrath of
which was often directed at them, too. Across the UK there was
resistance, mutterings about the necessity of a theatre in a
situation where the priority should be food and clothes. “It was
really provocative,” says Robertson. “We got Express articles and
Mail articles saying: ‘God, there’s a theatre in a refugee camp.
People found it so bizarre”

For the duo, the notion that art and aid are somehow mutually
exclusive not only revealed some of the unsavoury aspects of our
approach to refugees, but also exposed a lot about our attitudes
towards theatre. “In this country, we have quite a decorative idea
of what art is,” explains Murphy. “We don’t instinctively feel that
it is for political purposes.”

Despite suffering some criticism, Good Chance was soon
championed by some of the more liberal newspapers. Its profile was
undoubtedly raised by a string of famous supporters – Jude Law,
Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Stoppard – who retrained the national
focus on the two Joes, highlighting their attempts to re-instil a
sense of humanity among the audiences and actors in Calais.

But what is left when the media storm dies down? Can short term
publicity make a tangible impact? “Part of me feels very weird to
be honest about welcoming high-profile people out there,” says
Murphy. “But then there’s another very strong part of me that
thinks the ethics of celebrity is a luxury debate in a situation so

“It was insane. Jude, Tom and other famous faces came out and
had a positive effect,” continues Robertson.”Use what you have got
to make the world better. If you have got fame, profile and money,
use it.”

As for being seen as a flash in the pan? The Joes see it as
their responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. When the
surrounding campsite was demolished, the pair dismantled their
theatre, despite being assured they could leave it standing.
Without its community, it served no purpose. Yet the dome didn’t
lay dormant for long; last summer, it was rebuilt on the Southbank.
Today, Murphy and Robertson are toying with the idea of taking it
somewhere else on the migrant trail, perhaps Greece or Jordan. “It remains the same
process,” concludes Murphy. “You have to go and see something. And
only when you have seen something you can say, yes, this is what
needs to happen.”

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