WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT
22/03/2014 - 05/04/2014
No Rehearsals, No Director, No Set …
Imagine being 29 and forbidden to leave your country. Nassim Soleimanpour dissects the experience of a whole generation in a wild, utterly original play from Iran. Forbidden to travel, he turns his isolation to his own advantage with a play that requires no director, no set and a different actor for every performance.
Pub Charity Studio at The Court Theatre
22 Mar – 5 Apr, 2014
Puckish, playful, didactic meta-theatre
Review by Erin Harrington 27th Mar 2014
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is Spartan in presentation and rich in concept: one actor receives the script for the first time as they walk on the stage, which contains a chair, a couple of glasses of water on a table, and a ladder. Our actor for the evening is the wonderful Anna McPhail, who seems remarkably unfazed by the whole situation. From the moment she is introduced she establishes a warm rapport with the audience, and she pours herself into the script with energy, compassion and unwavering commitment.
Anna speaks as and for the author, 29 year old Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour, who at his time of writing in 2010 was unable to leave Iran because his refusal to participate in military service meant he was denied a passport. This play, then, is his sneaky way of undermining this restraint and inserting himself into the world by cheekily possessing the body of the actor for an hour and by soliciting photographs from the audience, which he asks that we email back to him (email@example.com – say hi!).
The script is an extended conversation with the audience that is peppered with interconnected animal fables and stories from Soleimanpour’s life, all of which dance between grim, moving and very silly. Anna should put her quality animal impressions on her cv.
Everything orbits around central issues of the nature of censorship, trust, freedom and control, the implications for those who stick their heads above the parapet, and how easy it is for people and groups to become a part of things that they may have no taste for. Incidentally, this play is a wonderful companion piece for the production of When the Rain Stops Falling, which is finishing its run on the Court’s main stage and which similarly considers how the past shapes the future.
While the author, through the mouth of the actor, describes the play as an experiment, it might be better termed meta-theatre. It interrogates its core themes through a blunt but playful manipulation of the relationship between the actor, the text, the audience and the author that speaks both to ongoing debates within theatre specifically and art in general – who or what is an author? What is their real author-ity in their physical absence? – while highlighting the ephemeral nature of the theatregoing experience.
The attention drawn to the way that the author reaches out through time and space is particularly poignant, given the emphasis placed on issues of censorship and the nature of physical, intellectual and spiritual constraint. For me, the ‘purity’ of this instance of shared theatrical communion is highlighted in the play’s final minutes, a ‘you had to be there’ moment that would be devalued through blatant description, and that because of its participants will never be repeated. (Sorry.)
It also begs the question as to the nature and limits of free will when the acceptance of (or surrender to) a script by an actor – and insert your broader metaphor here – marks their own initial complicity in the events that they participate in (much as the purchase of a ticket marks the complicity of the audience, whose docility is usually a part of the theatre-going social contract). Or does it? Are such actors really ‘free’ to make that choice? After all, they have to work to survive too – so back down the rabbit hole. No doubt dozens of MA students somewhere are salivating over the metaphysical implications.
I thoroughly enjoy these puckish intellectual convolutions, as well as the playful and often pointedly didactic nature of the script, especially as it is brought to life through Anna McPhail’s skilful performance. This is not my companion’s cup of tea, though; he finds the juxtaposition of the sinister and the jovial quite unsettling, and the prospect of being asked (or instructed) to participate leaves him in a twisted knot of anxiety – although I suspect, given the broader themes of the play, this might be part of the point.
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A game of power, control, threat, uncertainty and paranoia
Review by Charlie Gates 25th Mar 2014
When I expect a play or film is going to be explicitly political, I always feel slightly apprehensive. Like I’m about to be served broccoli, when what I really want is a chocolate bar. But White Rabbit, Red Rabbit defies expectations.
Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, the play has a cunning conceit: the script is handed in a sealed envelope to a different actor each night. The actor opens the envelope with no idea what to expect and what they will be asked to perform. What unfolds is a surprising, thoughtful, funny and brilliantly fresh piece of theatre.
It is playful rather than didactic, but still has an urgent and clear message. [More]
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Charged with immediacy
Review by Lindsay Clark 23rd Mar 2014
As an opening event in what Melanie Camp, Assistant Artistic Director at The Court, promises will be a season of engagement and adventure, this production lives up to aspirations in fine style. It is busy fun of the best, mind-stretching sort.
It is also bold and assured. No director, no rehearsals for the solo actor who will read the playwright’s words, no set apart from a chair, two glasses of water and a ladder … but an interesting model of theatre-making which guarantees us a unique experience. A different actor will act as the intermediary between writer and audience for each performance and none will have advance understanding of the material.
The result is charged with immediacy as the actor deals with the writer’s instruction or narration, including stage directions and cues for applause. Sometimes this is for the audience members who act out brief but seminal encounters, involving the white and red creatures. As the play develops, the nature of what it means to be one or the other, or to be the bully bear, the cheetah pretending to be an ostrich, or a sneaky, malevolent crow is explored in varying ways, adding up to an engrossing fable.
Broadly speaking (for it would be unfair to undermine the element of surprise in all of this), we are provoked into considering how the past informs the future, how freedom and free will are fragile concepts, and how the interwoven experience of writer, actor and audience is refreshed in this simple but shrewd hour of play.
The script has been hugely popular wherever it has been performed, not only because of its impact and freshness but because the voice of the Iranian playwright compels attention and invites response. His e-mail address is dictated to an audience member and also appears on the flier for the show. Genuine interest in the directness of his contact is sparked all around.
We live, we are told, as part of the writer’s future (he was writing in 2010) but he will be trapped in the words we hear. By surrendering to his voice – relayed by the actor – we have surrendered something of ourselves for the duration.
An actor with nerves of steel, a lively delivery and the ability to enter into the moment by moment changes of direction and function is called for. Kathleen Burns is an experienced and talented performer who in this case plays herself with genuine charm and fine responsiveness to the audience, although this can only be signalled by non-verbal means.
Cleverly controlled, so that words kindle our imagination or probe our reason, the play offers an intriguing experience and a valuable expansion on more conventional mainstage doings. The bar for The Forge is set high.
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