Duration: 1 hour
First broadcast: Saturday 15 June 2013
A fable for our times. In The Sleeper by Michael Symmons Roberts we see our own society as it is today but with one familiar element removed. This is a Britain in which, decades ago, human beings gradually lost the gift of sleep.
The Sleeper is a new verse drama by Michael Symmons Roberts with music by the WNO and youth chorus from Irish composer Stephen Deazley, adapted to create a soundtrack mixing speech, poetry and chorus.
Society is strained to breaking point by 24-hour wakefulness. The government has cracked down on subversive images of sleep. People work around the clock. Hotels are for private meetings and illicit sex. Shops never close.
Into this paranoid world, a teenage girl emerges, a girl who can sleep. Protected by her friends, she goes on the run from the authorities who are keen to control and study her gift. The group ends up living in a city centre squat, surviving as a group by shoplifting and begging.
The group grows increasingly anxious and fractious, with Ellah (the sleeper)’s boyfriend Jamie lapsing into cultish beliefs in the ‘old gods’, in which lullabies are chanted as prayers, worshipping sleep. Some of the other group members join in these rituals. Keller, the level-headed natural leader of the group, is struggling to keep the peace.
Hungry, scared and sick of being pursued, the group receives an offer of help from a wealthy man – known by the nickname Hypnos – who says he will protect them. But what does he want in return? Desperate, and running out of options, they go to him.
When they reach the man’s hideout they find a spectacular, illegal private ‘archive of sleep’ – films, paintings, music, books – and an eerie film-set centred on a four poster bed. The price for his protection is a movie. He wants to film the ‘sleeper’ sleeping.
Why? Well, it transpires that he is the son of the last ever sleeper. In fact, as a young child he woke his mother up from that last sleep. He plays the group a film of that fateful event, a home movie taken by his father of his mother’s rare and last sleep, ending with Hypnos – as a boy – waking her. After that, no-one slept again. The guilt of waking his mother has never left him, and the only cure is to film this newly discovered sleeper peacefully asleep.
With music created from the original WNO Youth commission by the composer Stephen Deazley, and performed by members of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Youth Opera
Directed in Salford by Susan Roberts
Michael Symmons Roberts is an award winning poet and experienced radio writer. His latest projects for Radio 4 include Crimes of Mancunia, A Man in Pieces and the award winning Soldiers in the Sun.
Michael Symmons Roberts