On the Sleeper

Kaya Genç

The best thing I saw at Edinburgh this year was The Sleeper, written and directed by Henry Krempels. (The play will be on for one night only in London, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre on Thursday.) Karina, played by Michelle Fahrenheim, is a Londoner travelling on an overnight train somewhere in Europe. She’s a writer, probably a Guardian reader, definitely a Remainer. Returning to her compartment after brushing her teeth, she finds someone else in her bunk. She rushes to the guard in a panic. The young woman hiding in her berth, Amena, is a Syrian refugee. She will be kicked off the train at the next stop.

As the play unfolds, different versions of the encounter are worked through. Early on, Karina asks to be upgraded to first class for the inconvenience she has suffered. By the end, she has decided she would rather share her bunk with a stranger than condemn a refugee to discovery and deportation.

I met Krempels in a café on Princes Street at the weekend, as the cast and crew were preparing to leave Edinburgh. In 2015, he told me, he was working as a journalist in Italy. When he travelled back to England, he would take the overnight train from Milan to Paris. Once a man selling soft drinks asked if he would buy him a ticket since he didn’t have one. But Krempels didn’t have the money for the fare. The authorities took the man off the train at 1 a.m. He had nowhere to go. Another time, the guard told him that people called it the 'train of second chance'. Later that night, at around 2 a.m., Krempels returned to his compartment to find a woman hiding in his bed.

He developed The Sleeper in collaboration with the Arcola Theatre in Hackney. Aya Daghem, who plays the part of Amena, has done a lot of work with Student Action For Refugees. Krempels got in touch with her for advice. They met for a coffee to discuss the workshops and, though she hadn’t acted before, within fifteen minutes he had cast her in the play.

They performed it in Edinburgh two dozen times on the top floor of a four-star hotel, sometimes at 10.30 in the morning. Sam Mendes went to see it but none of the actors noticed him in the audience. They seemed more focused on the hard facts of life: on the future of the refugee crisis, and on their own precarious existence in London, which they were about to head back to on overbooked, overpriced Virgin trains.