Fionnula Flanagan, Sinéad Cusack and Mark O’Halloran will perform in the play — which has been translated into 15 languages and toured the world since coming to international attention at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Aug 2011 — as part of next week’s Kinsale Arts Festival.
A performance of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit has no set, no director and no rehearsals. The actors — who have included Stephen Rea, the film director Ken Loach and Black Books star, Tamsin Greig — have to read the script on the fly during their performance.
English actor and comedy writer Tom Basden said he received an email 48 hours before going on stage telling him to bring a bottle of water and to prepare an animal impression.
An empty seat is always left in the front row of the auditorium for the absent Iranian playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour. The audience is given his email address and are invited to write him a note or send a picture during the performance or afterwards.
The one-hour play sprang to life as a response to his predicament. Soleimanpour was born in Dec 1981, and grew up in Shiraz, a city in the southwest of Iran. Like many Iranian males, he refused to do military service, which led to his passport being taken away. His frustration manifested itself in an unlikely fashion.
“About seven years ago, I had this nightmare, something like an anxiety dream,” he says. “I was on a stage. I had all the lights on me and I wanted to commit suicide in front of the audience, including my parents. The next day I woke up and wrote the first draft of Rabbit. It took me about seven or eight drafts to get it right.”
In Feb 2011, Wolfgang Hoffman, the artistic director of a German theatre company, Aurora Nova Productions, and Ross Manson, a Canadian counterpart, visited Tehran for the Fadhr International Theatre Festival. Soleimanpour helped out the pair as a translator, and told them about his play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Several months later, they premiered Soleimanpour’s message in a bottle, which he had purposefully written in English, in Edinburgh.
“Nassim is talking directly to the audience through this actor who is reading his script,” says Hoffman. “He explains that he cannot travel, that he hasn’t got a passport and that he wrote this play so that he could be in touch with people from other countries. He wonders. He doesn’t know whether the people can hear — because the play goes one way, and he doesn’t know when he wrote it, if it would be performed, or if he’d still be alive — so he asks them to write him emails. He is aware the play exists without him but he is within it. That’s quite fascinating.
“When he first told me about the play, I had a feeling it was just like the GDR. I’m from the former East Germany. I had a sense of deep connection. I knew how people were thinking in Iran. They had the same urgency for the arts. When people go to the theatre, they’re looking for the subtext, and are prepared to do the work to understand what is put in front of them. Meeting the people there, you see that they have a very clear sense of identity and are very cultured and yet they are living behind this wall of propaganda.”
The more often Hoffman saw Rabbit, the more layers he found within it, he says. “It comes across as quite a polite piece. It’s a very playful examination of the phenomenon of obedience. You put a few people in a room and they abide by certain rules. They are unspoken and immediately understood. Someone gets an order and he immediately obliges out of social etiquette. Without it being specific to a certain country, Nassim shows you the line of where it becomes wrong to oblige.”
Last year, due to a medical condition in his left eye, Soleimanpour got an exemption from his military service. In February, he travelled to Brisbane, Australia to see a production of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit for the first time. Earlier in June, he travelled to Sao Paolo, Brazil, too, to see it.
In the press notes for the play, journalists are told that Soleimanpour lives in Iran and to keep in mind that the play is not “overtly political”, and that “any allusion to it being anti-government could, quite literally, endanger the playwright’s life”.
During the telephone interview, Soleimanpour says he’s not afraid of anything, but stresses that his play is not specifically about Iran. It’s just “another country”, and makes comparisons with similar military service obligations in countries like Israel and Switzerland. People’s dissatisfaction with their governments is a universal condition, he says. He mentions Turkey and Brazil, two countries he visited this year where political protests have broken out. He clarifies his own situation.
“Writing a play in English helps you to learn English,” he says. “I didn’t know the term ‘conscientious objector’. Since many reviewers mention it, I went and googled it. It came to me that it refers to somebody like Cassius Clay, the boxer, who refused military service because of religion, but for me, and most young people in Iran, it’s not the same because we’re not in war. It’s because we don’t want to waste our time.”
There are three performances of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit during the Kinsale Arts Festival at Friary Church, Kinsale, Co Cork: 7.30 pm, Saturday, Jul 6 (Sinéad Cusack); 7pm, Monday, Jul 8 (Mark O’Halloran); and 7pm, Wednesday, Jul 10 (Fionnula Flanagan). Further information: kinsaleartsfestival.com.