Content warning: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, contains coarse language and references to violence and suicide.
In October, The X Collective presented the intriguing avant-garde theatrical experiment White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at Fate Container Studios in West End. Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, its key point of interest is not in the script, but in the performance conditions: there is no director, no rehearsals, and no set. No actor can perform the play if they have already read the script, or seen the play performed by someone else. The script is handed to them in a sealed envelope, which they open in front of the audience before they begin.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit explored themes of obedience, authority, liberty, and social conditioning, among other things. The playwright spoke through the actor at different times to explains his situation, as a young man unable to leave Iran, and his yearning to travel. Having refused to complete compulsory military service, Soleimanpour was unable to obtain a passport, and wrote a play that would travel the world in his stead. In the script, he described himself and wondered about the audience and the location of the performance. He requested that a seat be left empty, for him, in the audience. The piece was allegorical at times, absurd at others, and Soleimanpour’s authorial voice guided both the actor and the audience throughout.
Since its premiere at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2011, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit has been translated into more than 25 languages and performed over two thousand times. Brisbane was actually where the playwright saw this work performed for the first time; a 2013 performance at the Brisbane Powerhouse, staged as part of the World Theatre Festival, less than a month after Soleimanpour was able to obtain a passport and leave Iran. The X Collective brought this experimental theatre piece to Brisbane audiences once again, with a line-up of more than 20 performers tackling the unseen script over 12 nights.
In the spirit of the play, I had read very little about it before we attended. Due to the nature of the performance, no two readings would have been the same. The stage was set with a few pieces of furniture – a ladder, a chair, a table, two glasses of water – and appropriately lit in red and white. The audience took their seats, the first performer entered the stage, and both audience and actor took a step into the unknown together.
It was especially interesting to experience the two different interpretations of the actors, and the different energy that they brought to the stage, having never read the script before or seen it performed. Amanda McErlean performed more slowly, with gravity and pause as well as humour, while Terry Hansen read the script with a comedian’s quick pace and exaggerated physicality. There were elements of physical theatre demanded by the playwright, and audience members were also called upon to participate in the show.
The limited audience numbers, intimate performance space, and audience participation created a rapport and lowered barriers to engagement, and we spoke with fellow audience members during the brief interval. The audience was also encouraged to change seats before the second actor began their performance.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was an engaging experimental theatre piece, highlighting how much an actor brings to their role as well as the skill and courage required to take on an unknown project in front of an audience. This kind of experimental work is something that only live theatre can achieve – all performance art can only exist in the moment, and never be replicated exactly, but the unknown script and allowances for audience interaction in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit took this to a whole different level.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit played at Fate Container Studios, West End, from 7 – 30 October 2022