The fractured beginning of Sleepless, written by Hannah Barker and Liam Jarvis for Analogue Theatre, confuses and agitates me. What becomes a riveting detective story that ends with brilliant irresolution, at first seems disjointed. I’ll hesitate to say that, in the first moments of Sleepless, I misjudged the capability of the enthralling company and the mysteries they have to tell us.
A strange illness, or curse, haunts an Italian family. A gallery director is piecing together an exhibition in scientific detail; its visitors will be able to tour the gallery after hours through the eyes of a robot. “It’s the future”, her archeologist partner says – he’s always scrambling for history in a desert. Elsewhere, a doctor of science who researches animal infections that spread through proteins, is sacked for the unsavoury findings he believes in.
How could any of it all tie together? But slowly it does, beautifully and movingly. The acting becomes more subtle as the story coerces us into realising this is a detective drama with a political and medical spike. Balvinda Sopal gives her role particular sensitivity, as she struggles to understand the implications of her mother’s mysterious death. The stakes get higher and relational impacts more tense as we grow closer to realising the effect the sleepless illness has on the characters.
The white set – which has both the sense of a white cube gallery space and a clean medical room – adapts as needed. Designed by Anike Sedello, it’s a doctor’s study space, a gallery, a bedroom and another home. The space feels cluttered and awkward to negotiate for the actors. Screens invade it, in an attempt to show us deeper into the characters’ minds and provide a journalistic attitude with snippets of documentaries and news films. This drama is also investigative.
Eventually, it asks us to question the value of individual lives or individual pain; to exacerbate our assumption that one cure for a few is not worth great investment, even if maybe it would lead to greater knowledge. There are ironies aplenty in our doctor’s final vindication. It does come across as moralising in tone and I don’t like being preached to in the theatre. I would have preferred those final, spiny points to have been made without the speech; with the story. Nonetheless, the manner in which the concluding moments were illusive in terms of the characters’ lives, while the drama seemed to end with a resounding call to arms, was clever.
It’s a difficult play to examine without spoiling for you the nervousness I enjoyed while watching it. But I urge you to discover it’s compelling examination of the human emotional core of groundbreaking scientific research.
Sleepless is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until September 14.