Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour as an escape from his native country, White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been celebrated for needing no director or set and utilising a different actor for each performance – none of whom have seen the script prior to their performance.
Initially, it’s hard not to be apprehensive when actor Miles O’Neill begins reading from Soleimanpour’s script. It’s a very self-aware, self-reflexive work. One can easily imagine it being colloquially dubbed ‘too meta’ by detractors. Moreover, Soleimanpour’s central premise cannot help but continually recall Tim Crouch’s similarly-inclined An Oak Tree (wherein a new actor is introduced to the script with each performance).
In truth, there’s a lot of similarities between the two works. They’re both an attempt to reconcile tragedy (An Oak Tree, a loss of a child; White Rabbit Red Rabbit; being a political prisoner to your own country); they’re both as funny as they are soul-crushing and, perhaps most notably, they both attempt to interrogate our relationship with authority, control and meaning within our everyday lives.
However, Soleimanpour gradually carves out his own narrative. As the work progresses, memories of Crouch fade and are replaced by something more colourful, optimistic and, in its own way, desperate. It’s impossible to discuss the content of the work in any detail without in some way ruining it but, speaking broadly, it ceases being clever and becomes profound.
It is, at once, a blackened yowl of despair and a perverse celebration of freedom. Soleimanpour wrote the play because, on account of refusing obligatory military service, he is not permitted to secure a passport and leave his country. In the labyrinthine detours and blisteringly direct addresses of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, you hear both the sadness of his isolation – and the joy of connecting to audiences around the world.
The work is quite well-written, also. Soleimanpour’s debut English-language play, it’d be tempting to praise it simply on the basis of its background story and themes. Fortunately, that isn’t necessary. Buried beneath all the metacommentary and asides, there’s an incredibly lean and disciplined sense for pacing and narrative mechanics that would be remarkable in any play.
In regards to tonight’s performance of Soleimanpour’s play; Miles O’Neill does an exceptional job. As do the various audience members effectively forced to engage in the work. One would think that the nature of the play’s mechanics would mean that it’d be almost impossible to get it wrong and, from a certain perspective, it’d be correct. However, O’Neill and his inadvertent collaborators go above and beyond the call.
There’s a respect that O’Neill gives the work that allows it the immediacy and gravitas it deserves as a piece of writing. There are so many opportunities for an actor to overplay his or her role or to snidely comment on what the script demands of him or her. O’Neill doesn’t take the bait. He dutifully follows wherever Soleimanpour leads – however ridiculous and/or dangerous.
It’s impossible to know whether such quality will be matched by the remaining performers of the season but, for those in search of confronting and expressive theatre, White Rabbit Red Rabbit will almost certainly deliver.
Brisbane Powerhouse presents
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
by Nassim Soleimanpour
Venue: Turbine Studio | Brisbane Powerhouse
Dates: 14 - 24 Feb 2013
Tickets: $28 – $22
Part of the 2013 World Theatre Festival