“This is not so much a play as an experiment.”
Each night, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is performed by a different actor. This evening, in the Bristol Old Vic Studio, it was the turn of Annabel Arden.
Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, this tale is extraordinary. Our actor, Annabel, arrives on stage and is presented with the script in a sealed envelope. She is apparently performing White Rabbit, Red Rabbit cold… with the aid of a lot of audience participation.
Nassim wrote the play in 2010 when he was 29. As an Iranian, Nassim is forbidden from leaving his country, and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a clever way of attempting to recreate that sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness that such enforcement must produce.
Via the premise of a white rabbit who is attempting to go to the theatre, we are presented with a simple allegory of life for an Iranian. Our rabbit is told by a bear that he cannot enter the theatre unless he covers his ears, which he does. Our rabbit is then told by the bear that he needs a ticket to enter the theatre, but he has no money until someone takes pity on him. And so it continues. These roles are acted out by audience members, while Annabel reads from the script. Simultaneously, Annabel instructs the audience when they may clap, when to close and open their eyes, and what to think about what they see.
It is deliberately manipulative because what this is really representing is the harsh rules and restrictions by which Iranians live. And the mandatory audience participation (which personally I found rather intimidating – though that was surely an intention) is reflective of the obligatory participation by Iranians in the harsh regime in which they are forced to live.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is giving a voice who knows nothing about who will perform their play but still has the ability to tell the audience what to see, do, say and think. It is extraordinarily clever. And extremely effective and powerful in its response.
There are various themes of control explored within White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Time is one. For instance, Nassim knows in which year he wrote the play and what life was like for him on those days. But he does not know who will perform his play, in which country, to what audience, or even what gender his actor will be. As he reminds us, Nassim does not even know if he will still be alive at the time we watch his play being performed.
Another theme is that of power. Nassim is instructing his actor, Annabel, to command various audience members to do his bidding – to act like a rabbit, to jump for a carrot, to ‘poison’ a glass of water, and so on. By turn, the audience has the power to defy these orders – as one person did by declining to join in on the stage when Annabel asked.
The most powerful theme is that of suicide, which resonates from the first to last lines. Without giving too much away, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit holds a mirror up to our frequent inability to react when we see something awful. All too often we sit passively by and refuse to participate. Nassim is telling us that we are lucky to live in such a free country, and we should make the most of our privileges. He is, of course, right.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is being performed at the Bristol Old Vic Studio until January 19. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.