A work borne out of the frustration from not being able to leave one’s home country, White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a play that is both ingenuous and twisted in its premise.
By refusing to serve in Iran’s military service programme (which was mandatory for all men), playwright Nassim Soleimanpour was not granted the right to hold a valid passport. Thus, he found himself caught in a predicament.
Physically, he was bound to his homeland and faced the possibility of being trapped in Iran his entire life. But theoretically, other parts of him could travel – his words, his thoughts. This eventually took on the form of his critically acclaimed play White Rabbit Red Rabbit which travelled the world on his behalf.
Receiving rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2011, White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been performed by a multitude of actors from various backgrounds and in different languages. It finally made its way to Malaysia through the efforts of Jo Kukathas who first saw the play in Brisbane. Presented here by the Instant Café Theatre Company in association with Aurora Nova Productions, it had the local theatre scene abuzz in anticipation.
The playwright is the only one in control, yet he is not “there”.
I was fortunate enough to catch the last performance of the play in KL before it headed up north to Penang. Local comedian Kuah Jenhan was the final actor, with previous days featuring Ghafir Akbar, Iedil Putra, Anne James, Sharifah Amani, Pete Teo and Ee Ling Tang.
The play is intriguing in the terms of its delivery. Stripping it down, it does not contain any sort of “voice” except the playwright’s own. No directors, rehearsals or set required. The playwright is the only one in control, yet he is not “there”.
Nassim dictates both audience and actor through his script. Commanding, provoking and sometimes insulting, Jenhan read the script’s words out loud and clear. Animal impersonations abound, a potential vial of poison came into play and audience participation was enlisted. Life and Death became a game, a part of the plot.
Our understanding grew as the play progressed. It became clear that at every given point, subconsciously we had a choice to turn things around, to refuse to do as Nassim asks. There was a chance for disruption whether through the actor or even the audience themselves. After all, how was Nassim to stop us?
Context aside, if I were to judge the play based on just performance itself, I felt that Jenhan’s delivery of the script was somewhat lacklustre. I was left wishing that he could have injected much more of his usual brilliant comic relief into the play, effectively providing the audience with a more engaging experience when watching it. Reiterating what an audience member later said, “I wanted that disruption to come from the performers themselves. I felt cheated.”
However, all the actors should be commended for stepping into the unknown, because the script is given to them on stage and they must start straight away. Even seasoned thespians would have quaked.
There was a panel discussion after the final run. Actors from the previous sessions, as well as Jo and Nassim (who finally got his passport after a medical checkup showed that he could be exempted from service, a result through a disorder in his left eye) were in attendance to help shed more light into the nature of the play.
“As an actor, I have never felt so manipulated and so controlled by someone who was not present. And that was an interesting experience for me,” said Anne James. The others echoed agreement. The text translation of the script from English into other languages came up as well, drawing laughter when comparisons were made between the translation of curse words.
Generally, it was agreed that if you have seen the play, you can no longer perform it as an actor for the audience. To do so would have been losing the essence, the mystery and impromptu reactions that are so intricately associated with the flow of the play. They are what makes it such a compelling and different experience every single time it is performed.
The context of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is indeed interesting. It begs all who are involved within the play, be it the actor or the audience, to reconsider the choices they make in life. “At a certain point, a realization dawned that I was the rabbit, all of us were rabbits” said Pete Teo. Questioning the actions and decisions of authority, do we rebel? And if we do, for what cause?
Find out more about the play here.