The script of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a secret to many. Only the audiences who have seen it and performers who have taken part in it are supposed to know what it contains.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit’s author, playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, is equally reluctant to discuss its contents. Asked how he would describe the play to readers, he says “it doesn’t seem fair” to quickly describe the play he worked so hard on.
“If I can explain a piece of writing in five sentences, then why would I write 40 pages?,” Soleimanpour asks rhetorically, chuckling on the phone from Berlin where he is currently working on new material.
But he relents, explaining coyly that “mainly, I would say it’s a play that’s partly biographical, which is form-pushing. It doesn’t have directors. And it’s about a universal social phenomenon.”
Soleimanpour wrote this enigmatic play, where actors are only the handed the script moments before they go on stage, in his home country of Iran. He had been imprisoned for refusing to complete the nation’s compulsory military service as a conscientious objector, and prevented from leaving the country for years. The play left Iran before well before he did, being performed for years without Soleimanpour ever seeing it.
Nassim Soleimanpour (photo: Nima Soleimanpour)
At that time, Soleimanpour says that people initially saw the story, with its themes of secrecy and seclusion as a portrayal of life under hardline Iranian state, but he says audiences have come to see that Rabbit’s message runs farther than Iran.
“I kept seeing emails that were so kind, saying ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about the situation in Iran.’ And I was like, ‘Look, this is not just about Iran. What I’m talking about – you have it everywhere.’ Now with what happened in Brexit and what’s happening in Europe, and then what happened in the United States, I keep receiving emails from Americans. They say, ‘Oh my god! This is about Trump! This is about this new phenomenon!’ Eventually, after five or six years, you know, we’re on the same page.”
Asked whether the script being sealed shut before an actor opens and immediately performs it is a metaphor for these closed worlds, Soleimanpour says yes, but expands on that point saying “this is just one of the layers.”
“We tell some stories about the playwright, me who had to stay in Iran. And some other parallel stories about rabbits being trapped in a cage. The performer is trapped in the play. It’s like an onion in that way, these layers.”
Many actors have taken on the challenge including Stephen Fry, Whoopi Goldberg and John Hurt (photo: Chris Taylor)
A wide range of talent will tackle White Rabbit Red Rabbit at this year’s Fringe, including Trevor Smith, Adrienne Truscott, and Rory Walker in the 13-show run at Royal Croquet Club, plus Nick Hughes and Sarah Dunn at its two-performance run at the Stirling Fringe. Soleimanpour says different interpretations of the script are inevitable, but he is often fascinated by the similar choices completely different actors make.
“They do similar things, which is amazing,” he says. “You see a woman who is 67 in Vienna, and she’s doing the same thing as a boy who is 16 studying in a school in Penang. You have to ask yourself, what’s happening here? They have their own touches and differences, paces and colours. It’s like football, isn’t it? The rules are always the same but then it’s really about the moment.”
With his script having been translated into more than twenty languages, Soleimanpour is proud that this piece has found traction across the globe, but is hard at work on new stories to bring to the world. Last year he premiered BLANK, a similarly form-pushing theatre piece where the audience is encouraged to literally fill in the blanks and direct the story before them, and he soon expects to premiere his latest self-titled show.
“I’m writing other stuff,” he says. “The pressure is always more as people expect you to write better plays… We’re going to open a new play in London in the Bush Theatre. It will have its previews in July. The play is called Nassim, my first name. We will most definitely bring it to Edinburgh and tour it from there.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
The Pocket, Stirling Fringe
8pm, Thursday, March 2 and Saturday, March 4
The Parlour, Royal Croquet Club
6:15pm, Tuesday, March 7 until Sunday, March 19