If you’re wondering what Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit is about, don’t ask the performer. He or she won’t know either. The award-winning play, performed from New York to Auckland and translated into some 20 languages since it premièred in the UK in 2011, is a bit of an oddity.
The performer is handed the sealed script only when he’s faced his audience; no one can perform more than once; and Soleimanpour asks only that the producers pick a performer who knows nothing of the play but “prepare an ostrich impersonation” beforehand.
It sets the stage for an unusual experiment. The play needs no director, the audience can’t help but participate, and the playwright, in absentia, emerges as a thought-provoking character.
Soleimanpour, an Iranian writer, devised White Rabbit Red Rabbit after he was denied a passport for refusing to do military service. The play was his way of travelling the world without leaving. For years, he requested that a front-row seat be reserved for him at every staging.
Then, at a health check-up in 2012, he was found to have an eye disorder, exempted from national service and finally allowed abroad.
Soleimanpour first saw his play in Australia in 2013. Over the years, it has been performed more than 1,000 times, by performers as varied as actors Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane and George Takei and filmmaker Ken Loach.
In India, it has been performed close to 20 times in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune, by people ranging from Ashwin Mushran to Richa Chadha.
Soleimanpour is now set to visit India for the first time, to watch a Hindi translation of his play performed by Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, as part of the Literature Live! festival, on November 20.
Excerpts from an interview:
White Rabbit Red Rabbit sprung from your sense of isolation. And yet it is not about Iran. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. I don’t want to discuss my identity as an Iranian. Everybody has an Iran story. You go to Iran, take a cab from the airport and the driver will be forced to talk about his country, the economy, the situation. People coming out of Iran are stuck telling that story too. I wanted to delve deeper into the structure of theatre.
Was it difficult to see your play for the first time after it had already done so well around the world?
I sneaked into a show in Brisbane, and seeing a stranger mouth my words and identify as me was most confusing. The lady next to me recognised me from my picture in the booklet, and I quickly shushed her — I wanted to stay hidden and didn’t know why. A critic recognised me as I rushed out towards the end and offered me a cigarette, my first in three years. I didn’t eat or sleep that night.
But at the next show — a beautiful pregnant woman was performing — I jumped out of my seat and interrupted the play. I said “I am the real Nassim Soleimanpour”. The woman had to check her script to see if this was part of the act! I’ve watched so many versions now, and it’s different every time. Islam describes hell as the embodiment of all your sins before you. And I have to say, after all these years, some bits make me cringe.
What do you hope for from each performer, apart from that ostrich act?
The play breaks from training, theatre tradition and rehearsal, so there is no good and bad way to perform what you have never seen. But I’m always looking for a balance between the writer and the performer. Improv people do it differently. Some do such unexpected things with the script. I wish more writers were doing plays like this.
You give out your contact details in the play. What kinds of responses pour in?
People who’ve intervened or interrupted the ending always write in, thinking they’re the only ones who responded in that particular way. But people around the world have the same primitive reaction to a primitive impulse. As for the responses, I thought I was a writer, but I became a full-time reader after I started to get 50 to 60 emails a day. It’s what’s fuelled a new play, Blank, last year. Its script has several blank sections, leaving audiences to fill in the gaps using their own imaginations.