Pros: The subject of the refugee problem has been intelligently dealt with, and the cast are on top form.
Cons: Loud music at the beginning of the play obstructs the dialogue between characters.
“A play isn’t going to solve the refugee crisis”. That’s not me talking but Amena, the Syrian refugee played by Sarah Agha in The Sleeper or What Happens When You Ask Them to Leave? By introducing such a sentence in the play, writer and director Henry C Krempels is also posing us a question. His play (or any) won’t solve the refugee crisis, but then what will?
The Sleeper is based on an experience of Krempels’ own, which took place when he was travelling across Europe by train. In the show Karina (Michelle Fahrenheim) is the character representing his role. After discovering that a woman is sleeping on her bed, Karina reports the situation to George (Joshua Jacob), the train manager. Soon Karina sees that her action will have catastrophic consequences for the young woman, whose name is Amena, as she is a refugee without papers, even less a train ticket.
The show is divided into five parts and plays with the idea of “what if”, imagining the different situations in which Karina had acted differently. Half way through the play Amena interrupts the show and rebels against one of the proposed endings wherein she is “saved” by Karina after she gives her train ticket to her. Amena refuses to make this another show where the white hero saves the defenceless exotic victim – enough whitewashing of western guilt.
Krempels is not a refugee and is well aware of the limitations and risks of representing those who we perceive as victims. A patronising and orientalist approach, even if it saves a life, won’t solve the actual problem. Anima Theatre Company, the producers of this show, have taken it upon themselves “to give a voice to those who struggle to be heard”. And it’s indeed a Herculean task giving a voice without appropriating it. By speaking on someone’s behalf sometimes we make the mistake of stealing their say. The Sleeper however doesn’t err on this account at all, quite the opposite: it’s aware of the limitations of advocacy and makes a point about it.
Whereas content-wise this play is thought-provoking, committed and original in its standpoint, its weakness lies in the way it’s been delivered. At the beginning we hear Middle Eastern music playing in the background which completely obstructs the dialogue between Karina and George without adding anything to it. The whole division in parts might be slightly pretentious and unnecessarily complicated, sometimes even difficult to follow. As for the cast, they all offer a fine and engaging performance, with Michelle Fahrenheim shining in her role as Karina.
I don’t want to reveal a spoiler so I won’t tell you what happens in the final scene. But what I will say is that it’s the most beautiful part of the play and absolutely worth the visit to this remote theatre in the Isle of Dogs. It’s a hopeful and poignant ending elegantly crafted with the choice of music (unlike the beginning, this time an absolutely pertinent substitute of dialogue) and choreography of movements. A play might not solve the refugee crisis but this one definitely contributes positively to its approach.