White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

This intriguing piece of political meta-theatre frames its exploration of the complicity inherent in conformity in terms of the relationship between playwright, performer and audience. Devoid of a director, a set and acted by a different person each evening, it strips back the stage magic to ask: what’s really going on?

In a small black box space above a pub, a producer hands a brown envelope containing the script to that day’s performer, who has never seen it before. On the night I went, this was an actress – Emma Kilbey – but not everyone who puts themselves before the audience will be a professional.

What follows is an exercise of artistic freedom that depends on the performer’s and the audience’s mutual acceptance of authorial control. As the voice of the script insists, the person on stage is no more than a conduit through which the writer can manifest himself in words – and addressing us is 29-year-old playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian whose punishment for refusing to do national service is the loss of his passport.

In one way the show is a punch in the air for self-expression. It is an act of creativity which, thanks to email and the internet, enables Soleimanpour to speak to us in defiance of the political and geographic boundaries that restrict him physically. But an allegory about white/red rabbits, which requires our participation and recurs throughout the play like an ever-darkening refrain, muddies the moral waters.

The story of the white rabbit who is required to hide her ears under a red hat to get into the circus initially seems to be a straightforward parable of state repression – an analogy for a world comfortably ‘other’ to ours. But the frame changes when rabbits reappear as part of an experiment conducted by Soleimanpour’s uncle.

This time, a rabbit is marked red as a sign of its success in finding a carrot hidden in the cage it shares with other starving rabbits. But the outcome is that it will be torn apart by the remaining ‘white’ rabbits. This cycle repeats itself as successive generations of rabbits blindly emulate the behaviour of those that have gone before, ultimately without punishment or reward.

At this point, the Soleimanpour persona intercedes again. Neither the performer on stage nor we, as the audience, stand apart from the circus and the experiment; we are part of both. Soleimanpour isn’t in the room. The directness of his address is obviously an illusion. But when he calls us to the stage, we obey. We pay our pound to enter the ring and play by the rules, not realising how little we question why. Complicity is what keeps us in our seats.

This idea is cleverly enacted by using a performer who doesn’t know the script. Watching her struggle with its pages, fluff lines or react to its twists with unrehearsed bafflement is a reminder of the red rabbit we make of theatre. Of course, we know that what happens on stage isn’t real; but Soleimanpour’s interruptions and instructions never let us forget how deterministic it really is.

However, White Rabbit Red Rabbit takes a misstep when it attempts to demonstrate the extent to which conformity is our defining trait. Crucially, a decision that we are asked to make on behalf of the performer – whether or not she should drink a glass of water that may have been poisoned – simply never feels real. This is a problem for a play that trades in uncertainty, returning us to solid ground that has been chipped away at for the past hour. What venue would allow its cast to die on stage? If nothing else, the insurance claims would be through the roof.

It’s unlikely that you will leave this play wondering if you were a white rabbit responsible for killing a red rabbit. Nonetheless, it does make its mark. I came away wondering how much of what we had learned of Soleimanpour’s biography was true. Even if I didn’t believe in the poison, had I too readily believed in the power of “I” as a sign of an authentic voice? While ordering a drink in the bar afterwards, I overheard others asking the same question. During the production he invited us to email him at nassim.sn@gmail. Perhaps I will.

First published by Exeunt magazine