Over the last few years, images of refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety in Europe have become such a common sight in our newspapers and on our TV screens that they’ve begun to lose a little of the powerful impact they once had. The Sleeper – or What Happens When You Ask Them to Leave?, inspired by the personal experience of writer and director Henry C. Krempels, restores that immediacy by bringing the refugee crisis out of the papers (despite, ironically, having begun as a journalistic piece) and into the here and now – or more specifically, into British writer Karina’s bed on an overnight train through Europe.
Returning from the bathroom, she finds a young woman hiding in her bunk and unthinkingly goes in search of the train manager to complain. When the woman is revealed to be a Syrian refugee, Karina insists she wants to help; but despite returning to the beginning and replaying the situation in a variety of slightly different ways, there seems to be no obvious solution to the chain of events set in motion by her instinctive reaction.
It’s at this point that things get both interesting and a little uncomfortable, as Amena – who up to now has remained largely silent – steps up to have her say. Amused and bemused by the well-meaning but misguided notion that “a play can solve the refugee crisis”, she’s no longer content to sit by while the two white people try and solve her problem; nor does she need someone else to tell her story for her, however well researched and factually accurate that account might be. This is the play’s pivotal moment, and it jolts both actors and audience out of our complacency, dramatically altering our perception of Amena and our response to her situation.
The experimental piece is performed by a cast of three, with Sarah Agha’s Amena – perhaps not surprisingly – emerging as the strongest personality. Proud, independent and not afraid to stand up for herself, she doesn’t fit the mould of the timid, grateful refugee stereotype, and the play is all the richer for it. That said, the characters of Karina and train manager Georges – played by Michelle Fahrenheim and Joshua Jacob – are equally interesting; both are bound by their own sense of duty to an unwritten code, which means that despite the best intentions, their ability to help is limited to their own narrow frame of reference. It’s only when those restrictive codes are discarded, resulting in a lengthy sequence that builds little by little towards the play’s striking final image, that another possible way forward emerges.
At first glance, this conclusion seems to imply the play is doing exactly what it said it wouldn’t: trying to solve the refugee crisis. But on reflection, it’s not so much suggesting what we should do in this one incredibly specific situation as inviting us to take a step back to view the big picture in a different way, and challenging the sense of privilege that colours our assumptions every time those familiar images appear on our TV screens. And by addressing this lesson as much – perhaps even more – to its own cast as to the audience, the play successfully makes its point without feeling like it’s preaching. Unusual and thought-provoking, The Sleeper is an interesting hour of theatre that may not give us answers, but does leave us with plenty to think about.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉