The word ‘circadian’ comes from the Latin ‘circa’ (about) and ‘dies’ (day), and refers to the 24-hour pattern inside which we live our lives. It’s marked most obviously in human bodies by the cycle of sleep and wakefulness. small hours by Ava Wong Davies was co-commissioned by Oxford Playhouse and the IF Oxford Science and Ideas Festival, with advice from the University of Oxford Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute. The resulting play is about four characters with different, uneasy, relationships to sleep – with disturbed or disrupted circadian rhythms.
Aisha (Akasha Daley) has had insomnia for years, but she’s in denial about it. She is sympathetic, in Daley’s portrayal: sweet and wide-eyed and earnest. There is something insect-like about disturbed sleep: Aisha describes it as feeling “like you’ve crawled out of your body and can’t get back in.” Her ex-girlfriend, Nush (Anusha Abbas), works a day shift at Tesco and a night shift in a bar. Her dad has recently died, aged fifty-one, of a heart attack caused by overwork and sleep deprivation, after surviving on only four hours’ sleep a night. After breaking up with Aisha, Nush meets Solomon (Nelvin Kiratu), who “handles money.” He travels a lot for work, and lives in a state of near-constant jetlag. He is distanced from his father, by mismatched time zones and their wealth gap: his dad works in a factory and struggles financially, while Solomon owns a smart, all mod-cons, apartment. Luis (Luis Ribeiro), Aisha’s brother, is a security guard for Solomon’s building. Ribeiro plays him with a compelling choked intensity. He has a newborn daughter and is struggling to adjust, working nights and wandering the streets in the early mornings to avoid going home.
small hours is clever and well-constructed by Ava Wong Davies, fitting in various causes and effects of sleep disturbance without feeling too tick-boxy for a piece with a relatively narrow remit. The characters have lives and personalities that are complex and ambiguous enough to be interesting in themselves, and they can be weird in a nicely specific way. Luis admits to Solomon, as they share a midnight cig break, “I punched someone a few weeks ago. It felt incredible. Now I wonder what it would feel like to get punched.” As Aisha is trying to explain how Nush has been cruel to her, she tells her bluntly, “I keep having this dream where I’m talking to you and then your jaw falls off.”
Ben Johnston’s video edit often places a square of blank black space around the filmed action and video conversations, like there’s something hidden beyond the screens, a life outside the night. The production is claustrophobic. Its colours are the orange sodium of street-lights, the whitish-blue of bedroom walls, and the music (by Duotone) ticks and drones. I notice a strange, flat quality to almost all the characters’ conversations; it’s not exactly the awkward Zoom energy we all know and hate, but a kind of odder, less identifiable, disconnection.
The cast, all young members of Mandala Theatre Company based across Europe, filmed their parts themselves in under a week, and all direction by Yasmin Sidhwa was done via Zoom. It’s a little hard to tell whether the resultant production feels atmospherically dislocated because of these circumstances, or because it’s meant to. The classic phone-acting pitfall – it’s clear that there’s no-one on the other end of the line – can be passed off as a statement on loneliness and lack of connection in this globalised, digital, socially distanced age. Nonetheless, the company have produced something that is effectively unsettling and theatrically imaginative. There are some beautiful and accomplished moments of physical theatre, the performers’ shadows moving smoothly then twitchily, lit by phone screens and night-lights.
small hours is not just about sleep, it’s also about work. The characters’ circadian rhythms are out-of-kilter because Aisha has been fired over Zoom; Nush works back-to-back shifts; Solomon flies wherever his job in international finance takes him; and Luis works nights: “the graveyard shift.” Nush talks about herself as a “finite resource” and the play tugs at a question that’s both moral and economic: how much of ourselves (in the form of our time and our labour) do we owe to others? In the final scene of the play, Nush changes the locks on Solomon’s apartment and locks him out. She tells him: “all I want to do is sleep, not to work better or to be more efficient just for the sake of it.” Solomon accuses her of being a leech.
Sleep, under a capitalist logic, is unproductive time. It is time that won’t get you anywhere, won’t earn you anything. For this reason, arguably, it is increasingly pushed to the edges of our lives, in an era of 24/7 access to work emails; in a pandemic during which work enters everyone’s bedrooms via laptop Zooms; in an economy of freelance gigs and shifts and short-term contracts. Literary scholar Lauren Berlant uses a fairly visceral image to draw out the connections between capitalist logic, work, and exhaustion: “capitalist forms of labour make bodies and minds precarious, holding out the promise of flourishing while wearing out the corpus we drag around.”
It’s easy enough to recognise this, working in theatre and the arts, particularly at the moment. The “promise of flourishing,” in the form of creative fulfilment, can be used to keep people working – often freelance, self-employed, or on zero-hour contracts – in an industry that regularly overworks and undersupports them. I’m conscious of the way small hours was produced: on commission, to very tight deadlines, directed entirely over Zoom, with actors filming themselves while they perform. Sidhwa describes the process, in a pre-recorded short clip, as “innovative, new, and exciting.” In one sense the production is, indeed, a real testament to creativity and collaboration, and often there can be joy and genuine pride in collectively meeting new challenges. But the exigency of such working methods could also raise questions about the precarity of the industry more widely and those struggling to keep working in it through unprecedented times, forcing themselves to adapt to survive.
small hours is available to watch online until 8.30pm on 25th October here. Tickets are Pay What You Decide.