The Sleeper

In 2015, Henry C Krempels was commissioned by VICE to write an article on the refugee crisis which was then at its peak. Now the artistic director of Anima Theatre Company, Krempels has adapted the experiences behind his article into a theatre piece, The Sleeper, currently playing in Edinburgh. Amena is a Syrian refugee travelling alone without ticket or passport on a sleeper train through Europe, Karina is a young, naïve British traveller and George is the French train guard. Through presenting the various reactions of these people to the discovery of Amena on board the train, including the responses of Amena herself, The Sleeper interrogates and challenges notions of placeless-ness, privilege and anonymity.

A thought-provoking study of people, belonging and the absence of place.

Krempels’s script is founded on a strong premise. As the drama progresses we witness alternative versions of the same event playing out on the stage. Each iteration sees Amena, Karina and George respond differently to their environment and circumstance, and each response brings to bear a different ethical pressure on the narrative. Then, in a clever twist, the action moves outside the sleeper train to a rehearsal room, and characters Amena, Karina and George become their real-life actors Aya Daghem, Michelle Fahrenheim and Joshua Jacob. In doing this, the alternative realities offered by the play become not just an exhibition of multiple situations but an active exploration of Western attitudes to immigration, as the rehearsal is clearly taking place in Britain. This draws out some of the play’s most telling moments. An improvised rehearsal exercise sees Daghem (here assuming the role of director) ask Fahrenheim, ‘So what are you, a saviour?’ following a particularly impassioned exchange between Fahrenheim and Jacob. This is a useful and politically-charged counterpoint to an earlier passage in which Daghem’s Amena tells Fahrenheim’s Karina, ‘I don’t want your help’.

This is a subtle idea, and has the potential to be brilliant in future developments of the play, but at present is not handled or structured clearly enough to be effective. The switch from linear narrative into simultaneous narratives happens too late and too abruptly to work; for a considerable while it is unclear what the aim of the disruption is other than simply to throw the audience off guard. This results in the closing third of the play appearing needlessly confusing, which is a shame considering that the project is otherwise very well put together. Dialogue too is intermittently weak – mostly engaging, there are nonetheless instances of speech becoming repetitive, a tricky pitfall to avoid given the nature of the production.

All three actors put in a stellar performance. Jacob is strangely captivating as the mysterious Frenchman, whose character is almost the voice of the European political subconscious. Fahrenheim, self-assured and good-hearted, controls her role as the site of internal conflict with flair. Lastly, Daghem is quietly brilliant as Amena; her monologues recalling her journey are some of the play’s best, and most distressing, moments.

Despite its structuring difficulties, The Sleeper manages to be a thought-provoking study of people, belonging and the absence of place.

Reviews by Sam Fulton

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★★★★
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Speaking in Tongues: The Lies

★★★
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Fuaigh – Interweaving

★★★
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Phil Wang: Kinabalu

★★★★
Scottish Storytelling Centre

Turntable / Edinburgh

★★★★
theSpace on the Mile

Me, as a Penguin

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Set on an overnight train somewhere through Europe, The Sleeper weaves together the real testimony of Syrian refugees and the personal experience of Henry C Krempels, who draws from his piece commissioned by Vice Magazine in 2015, at the height of the immigration crisis. The play describes a situation familiar to thousands of refugees over the past few years who have become stuck somewhere between leaving home and starting a new life, where anonymity rules and the less we reveal about ourselves the less obvious our differences will become.