Review: The Sleeper at The Space

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.

The Sleeper is at The Space until 14th April.


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… 😉

Interview: Henry C Krempels, The Sleeper

“I think the crux of the immigration crisis can be reduced to a simple question. Do we claim what’s rightfully ours – that word throws up another entire question, I admit – or do we share it? When I had this experience, I was struck by two things: the first was that this crisis wasn’t happening elsewhere, it was here, right in front of me, and the second was how this whole thing boiled down to my reaction at the time. What was I going to do in the heat of the moment?”

Anima Theatre Company’s The Sleeper brings together true accounts from Syrian refugees and the very personal experience of artistic director Henry C Krempels, was longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, and described in The Scotsman as “an exceptional piece of theatre-making”. The company are now preparing to bring the play to London, opening at The Space on 3rd April.

“The Sleeper is set on an overnight train somewhere through Europe,” explains Henry. “Karina, a British writer, naively reports a refugee hiding in her bunk. I think first and foremost, the play tells a story familiar to thousands of refugees over the past few years who have become stuck between leaving home and finding a new one.

“It’s all based on an experience I had on an overnight train from Milan to Paris. I came back to my cabin at about 2 in the morning and found a woman hiding in my bed. I then wrote this play, based entirely on that moment, and weaved together the real testimony of Syrian refugees, which I collected over a number of months, and my own personal experience which was commissioned by Vice Magazine at the height of the immigration crisis.”

Because the play began life as a piece of journalism, Henry had plenty of research to work from. “I had interviews and transcriptions, photographs, my own notes and conversations with people and charities including Refugee Action, who were based at Milan Central Station at the time – they were operating out of the mezzanine, which has now become a plush restaurant,” he recalls. “After collating all my research and getting a first draft we workshopped the central ideas, did a couple of scratch nights, then I went away and wrote something more complete.

“We have also done workshops as part of Arcola LAB, with refugees and migrants. We’ve allowed them to critique our play, insert their voices and opinions and talk, if they wanted, about their own experience of travelling through Europe. This was a particularly rewarding part of the process. These people are so much more than the traumas they’ve endured. ‘Inspiring’ doesn’t cover the half of it.”

Alongside the play, the company are producing a number of events. “Two main things: we are running workshops as part of the production, based around authenticity on stage. The central question is once a story is told, who does that story belong to and how can you get to the truth of a story? I guess, also, what even is truth on stage?

“We’ve also set up a ‘Refugee Fund’. The idea here is for theatre-goers and others to donate to the fund in order to help pay for the tickets, travel and workshop expenses of 100 refugees over the run. We all feel that this play is, in many ways, by, for and about refugees and asylum seekers and we have to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for them to see it. Money is the major obstacle in this case.”

Anima’s primary goal is “to get new people, new audiences into theatre. Theatre has lost its place in society, I think. And that kind of collective experience should be integral. As integral as TV and Twitter. We want to make things that push it back into that direction. Inexpensive, entertaining, intellectually stimulating and, I guess, most of all, totally relevant.

“The company grew out of this idea of making theatre that was inclusive and collaborative. My background in journalism has influenced not only the way I write – research, research, research – but also the stories I want to tell. I am endlessly fascinated by the faltering line between fact and fiction, particularly in the context of theatre. The idea of showing something truthful extends beyond fact and fiction in theatre, even beyond the emotion of a scene. We’re always looking for truth and I want to push whatever that means as far as it can go.”

Book now for The Sleeper at The Space from 3rd-14th April.