Reviewed – 4th April 2018
“sometimes its cleverness is confusing, and occasionally the dialogue does become repetitive”
At the height of the refugee crisis, in 2015, over seven hundred people drowned in one morning crossing the Mediterranean on the hazardous boat trip from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. They were just a part of the mass Syrian exodus trying to reach Europe, handing over control of their lives to fate, knowing that there was only a slim chance of ever getting it back. For those lucky enough to reach dry land, the next step on their journey was hopping on the overnight train to Paris; a direct route between the countries, which has become known as the “train of second chances”.
This night train is the setting for “The Sleeper”, written and directed by Henry C. Krempels, currently running at The Space following its debut in Edinburgh last year. Drawn from his experiences of riding that train himself as research for a commissioned magazine article, this slick and powerful theatre piece revolves around Karina, a white, British traveller; Amena – a Syrian refugee without papers or passport, or money; and the officious guard on board the train.
And ‘revolve’ is what the drama does. The story frequently finds itself back at the beginning, allowing us to observe the events from differing viewpoints – our own shifting perceptions being cleverly swayed each time the characters subtly reshape the narrative.
Karina (Michelle Fahrenheim) reports a refugee (Sarah Agha) hiding in her bunk on the overnight train in Europe. Fahrenheim brilliantly captures that very English mix of obsequiousness and hauteur. Is she really trying to help or is she just a professional complainer looking for a quick upgrade to first class? Joshua Jacob, as the French guard, is the voice of authority. Unbending in his commitment to ‘following procedure’ he chillingly reminds us of the historical dangers of taking this edict to the extreme. But the shining light is Agha’s strong portrayal of the refugee. Initially mute, she eventually seizes the narrative for herself. Even at one point totally smashing down the fourth wall and stopping the action, stepping out of character, and questioning the other two ‘white’ actors’ right to be involved in the telling of what is, after all, her story. “A play is not going to solve the refugee crisis!” she pointedly laments.
This self-awareness in the writing keeps the piece entertaining and avoids the pitfalls of diatribe, but sometimes its cleverness is confusing, and occasionally the dialogue does become repetitive. But, despite an overly drawn-out conclusion, this is an important piece of theatre: thought-provoking and illuminating. The cyclical structure reminds us that there is always more than one way of looking at things. Krempels challenges our preconceptions about the crisis and allows us to absorb the fact that there is “no single solution”. Again – like the play itself – that can be interpreted in more than one way.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Anima Theatre Company
The Space until 14th April