Hatch at NEAT14: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

“One day, a rabbit decided to go to the circus and see a play…” This isn’t, it should be said, the beginning of Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour‘s script for White Rabbit, Red Rabbitnor is it much of a clue as to what the script contains. But there’s the bind. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’s entire raison d’etre is that the contents of its script remain unknown, not so much to the audience, perversely enough, but to the performer chosen to enact it on any given night. No performer can perform the script more than once, and no performer can know what the script holds in store before they are onstage, where they are handed a sealed envelope containing a text they have never seen. From that moment, with a thin sheaf of white A4 printed pages in his or her hands, the  performer delivers the lines as an unrehearsed cold reading, knowing no more (or perhaps less) than the audience does about the script’s trajectory when its stories begin to unfold, one inside another.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

For NEAT14, Hatch recruited three performers to take their places on the stage in a function room above the Peacock pub on Mansfield Road, where White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was performed on three different nights. Chris Sainty, The Gramophones‘ Hannah Stone and Zoo Indigo‘s Ildiko Rippel took one turn each to become the borrowed voice – or perhaps the puppet – of Nassim Soleimanpour. The reason for this substitution of performers lies in two aspects of the script. First, its origin as a piece written to circumvent the travel restrictions, now lifted, that its author was under in 2010, when he wrote it in the cities of Shiraz and Tehran to send into the world in his place. This meant that the act of borrowing the voices of others for what is, in essence, a one-person show, must have seemed a necessary device to underscore the author’s physical absence.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

There are also internal features of the situation the script engineers that require a ‘blind’ performance. Without giving anything away, it’s central to the meaning of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit that the audience fully believes that whoever reads Soleimanpour’s words knows nothing about the outcome or anything of the path taken to reach it. Each performer must gradually realise the process of manipulation they have become part of onstage, with the audience watching and (sometimes) participating. At the heart of this manipulation is the question of obedience: will the actor perform the author’s instructions or put down the script and leave the stage? How far will they go to fulfil their duties as the performer of this script, under the pressure of an agreement to complete the task?

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

Given the way that the text operates as something akin to military order papers rather than a conventional play mediated by a director, Soleimanpour’s nationality and personal history, as a conscientious objector to military service, have been invoked to explain his intentions. In truth, though, there is not much cultural specificity here. The script’s allegories of play-going rabbits, officious bears and crows, of cheetahs impersonating ostriches, of white and red rabbits undergoing experiments, can all be read as easily within the English framework of The Wind in the Willows and the Work Programme as they can be connected to any Iranian literary or historical precedent. If anything, this is a script that best fits certain 1960s definitions of the Theatre of the Absurd. As for the larger points about obedience and manipulation? Well, as Soleimanpour has explained himself, in more than one interview, Iran is not the only place on earth where such questions need to be asked.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

Whatever the reason, then, this is a script that must be discussed without exposing too much about its details and workings. The cold reading and insistence that Soleimanpour is speaking directly through the actor often means that in hearing both voices we’re not hearing either very clearly and this can act as a distancing screen – a device that’s conceptually apt but sometimes operates in a trade-off with immediacy. It’s interesting to note that Soleimanpour himself, seeing the piece performed for the first time three years after he’d first written it, apparently felt compelled to interrupt and explain to the audience that he could now see all the things he’d do differently, but he would leave the script alone, as a piece of work grounded in its moment of origin – he was already a sufficiently different writer to the one who had written White Rabbit, Red Rabbit to feel any attempt at revision would be to redraft a voice now displaced from his in time, much as the text had originally set out to speak remotely, displacing Soleimanpour himself geographically.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour [image credit Julian Hughes]

Equally – since the objective of any performance is to create an illusion of real events unfolding – would we be any the wiser if a performer who had read the script got up on stage and played the part? Isn’t the whole point of theatre that we regard the feigned death of an actor as the real death of the character? Couldn’t the cold reading be faked? But perhaps the key to White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is precisely the question of obedience and trust implicit in the performer’s not-knowing. Soleimanpour has issued instructions that can be disregarded, adapted and changed at any time. A performer can choose to interject her own stories and ad-libs (as Ildiko Rippel does) or follow the script exactly (as Hannah Stone did). The audience can interrupt and change the outcome, as happened to Chris Sainty. The message seems plain: the power of any script, theatrical or otherwise, lies solely in our own willingness to act out its instructions. Such knowledge can make red rabbits of us all.

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