Writing a review for a play that you’re not really allowed to talk about has its obvious constraints. You can’t really say much about the plot of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit and even if you could, the mention of the rabbits, cheetahs, ostriches and bears, which feature in the performance, might give a reader the wrong impression. It sounds like a whole lot of fun and games.
The premise for White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, the experimental work written in 2010 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, is simple. A new actor performs the play each night, reading an unseen script from a sealed envelope. There is no director; there are no rehearsals. The actor’s only instruction is to open the envelope and read the script ‘in a loud voice’. What follows breaks every convention of theatricality. The fourth wall is dissolved from the first sentences and the play incessantly refers to its own status as a piece of theatre. Audience members are forced to the stage, props are sourced from the crowd and phones are switched on and used to take a photograph during the performance. This is metadrama amplified.
It might be easy to think that the play is a little too ‘gimmicky’, that it trades too much on its premise and lacks substance. Yet, the piece makes the audience, and indeed actor, think deeply about the power of a script. Denied a passport and unable to leave his home country of Iran, Soleimanpour shows how his piece of writing gives him at least a degree of freedom. His words and his ‘voice’ are permitted outside of the country; the play has, since its inaugural performance in 2011, been performed 200 times, and has been translated into 15 different languages. Renowned actors and famous figures such as Sinéad Cusack, Phil Jupitus and Ken Loach have bravely opened the envelope and read Soleimanpour’s words to an audience.
Yet the play still manages to be immersive and emotionally engaging, which is no mean feat given the dissolve and evaporation of the fourth wall. You leave the theatre feeling sweaty, shaken, and complicit in an act of crime. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit reveals some ugly truths about human conformity and you are bitterly aware of the how ‘the future influences the past and the past influences the future’.
While there are white rabbits, red rabbits, cheetahs, ostriches and a bear, Soleimanpour’s play has a serious edge. On the barren stage, there are also two glasses of water and a vial of poison (is it sugar? Salt? Arsenic? Cyanide?). The play is a loaded gun; it is a suicide machine and a murder weapon.