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,
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.