Monday, July 8, 2013

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

Have you ever been to a play where there is no director, no set and a different guest as actor each night, reading a script they have never seen before, in front of a live audience?  Where you as a member of the audience might be called upon to be part of the play?  Where the play itself is different each night it is performed. 

Well, we had no idea of the life story of Nassim Soleimanpour when we purchased tickets for this play.  We know now he is a playwright who was unable to leave Iran, as he refused to sign up for national service.  Frustrated at being denied a passport and feeling disconnected with the outside world, he had the unique idea of writing White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.  He wants to connect with people around the world and this play is a way of doing that.  It is rather freakish how he manages to control a day of our lives without ever leaving Tehran.   He craves however, to know who we are and how we reacted to his play.  The audience is asked to email or text him messages about their reaction to the performance and photos of the actors. 

This play was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival through a chance meeting with a couple of German and Canadian directors when they visited Tehran for an International Theatre festival.  Nassim met them while helping out as a translator.   He told them about his play, they were intrigued and several months later it premiered in Edinburgh!  The play has toured the world from Edinburgh to Ottawa, from New York to Sao Paulo, and from San Francisco to Brisbane and today it is in Kinsale and we are part of his audience.  It is Nassim’s message in a bottle to the world he is unable to connect with.  For me it is a validation that dreams do come true. 

However, as I googled information about Soleimanpour for this story, I read that five years after making that stand, he was diagnosed with a serious eye condition and he is now permanently exempt from military service and can travel to see how the play is going down.  At his request, there is always a free seat left for him at the front of the audience.  To the excitement of the audience that seat has now been filled 6 times in different cities around the world.  Today, in Kinsale it remains empty.

Sinead Cusack (the actor for today) stands before us, a brown sealed envelope in her hand.  She rips it open and the show starts.  The show is in the Friary Church in Kinsale and all the swear words have been edited out at the request of the church.  Nazim is talking directly to the audience through her…

I was born on Azar 19th, 1360 in Tehran.  That’s Tehran, December 10th, 1981 in Christian years…”

Nassim continues to talk to us throughout his play.  He imagines the audience, how we might react, what we might look like.  He asks us to think how the past has made the future and how the future makes the past…!  He says in the play that he always had a dream of writing something that would set him free.  He says, “it tastes like freedom to know there are these other people in one’s play and it tastes like freedom to be able to travel to other worlds through my words.”  As a writer myself, I too am fascinated at the thought there are people all over the world who are reading the words I write on my blog and on my Facebook page.  There are people who write back, who ‘like’ my photographs, who post comments on my blogs.  One day those people might even buy the book that I dream of writing, so I can connect with Nassim’s words…they make sense to me…they excite me and give me hope for my own future. 

As part of the act, we are asked to start counting.  1,2, 3,…  He wishes to know how many people are here.  There are about 210 today.  The numbering is also a way for him to get various members of the audience to enact parts of the play.  Later on in the play he reflects on how he got these various people who he refers to as ‘red rabbits’ to do as he bid, without him even being present.  He asks us to think about obedience…about conformity.  He asks us to question what our limits are…how far we are prepared to go?  It makes me think about some of the atrocities that have been committed in history – that are being committed today because of obedience, because no one has the courage to make a stand. 

The play also discusses the issues around suicide and the many ways it can be committed.   He has googled and found there are 17 ways to do this.  He adds an 18th, which is his own.  He says, “LIFE, is the most common way to commit suicide.  Life means choosing the longest solution for dying.  It means the struggle for suicide through the decomposition of the body and the gradual exhaustion of the soul”.   Interesting.   Are you engaged in work that is soul destroying?  Do you have the courage to leave?

But back to the play…

We are almost at the end.  He has illustrated a story about rabbit behaviour - red rabbits, white rabbits and a carrot at the top of a ladder.  The red rabbit races for the carrot every time. The white rabbits get a dunking of ice-cold water instead.  Over time, the white rabbits attack the red rabbit as they are sick of getting wet but he continues to go for the carrot.  The red rabbit has only two choices – starvation or a dunking in cold water…and he chooses the carrot each time! 

The scenario changes, and over time both the water and the carrot are removed from the cage.  New rabbits also gradually replace the old rabbits, till eventually there is a set of rabbits who neither knew about the dunking or the carrot.  Despite these changes, the rabbits continue to behaviour in the same way…with the red rabbit going for the imaginary carrot and the white rabbits continuing to attack him, even though they are not dunked. 

He asks us to consider how the past makes the future and how the future is the past. 

We think about how we make choices based on past history.  Why do we never question the stories we are told?  Why do we continue to repeat the same behaviours without ever questioning past behaviours, our elders, the institutions that want to controls us…?

One of the threads in the play is a scenario with two glasses of water.  One has had a vial of so called poison stirred into it by a member of the audience.  The actor has switched these glasses while we had our eyes closed so we are unaware of which glass contains the poison.  Her last act involves following an instruction to drink from one of these glasses…in the hope there was never any poison…and n the hope that she remembers which one is the safe glass.

But there is a twist.  The last two pages of the script are to be read by a member of the audience.  She is instructed to say the words ‘White Rabbit’ at which point she must put the script down and wait for someone to walk forward.

There is deathly silence in the audience.  We don’t know where this is going and no one is prepared to walk up.  Steven (my partner) and I look at each other…willing the other to go.  Then Steve gets up and walks toward the front of the church.  There is a small gasp from the audience…

Nassim then talks to Steve, through the script. Here is what he says:

My greetings to you who have picked up my text!  I wish I could hear your voice.  I don’t know your number, but it’s not important any more.  The important fact is that you’ve succeeded in separating yourself from the others and climbing the steps of the carrot ladder to reach my text.  I colour you red and name you the NEW RED RABBIT.”

It’s slightly chilling but he has got us to enact the story of the rabbits.   In the end we are all just a bunch of white and red rabbits.  Somewhere, in all of us there is that craving to be the red rabbit, to be the standout who reaches the carrot.  But only a few among us will have the courage to do so.  Today, the red rabbit is Steven.

The play ends with the original actor (now relegated to being a white rabbit) having to make a choice as to which glass to drink from or whether to drink at all.   The audience is asked for their opinion and they shout various instructions…don’t drink …drink from the glass on the left…no - the right.

She picks up the glass and drinks and then lies down as if dead.

The audience is asked to leave.  Steve sits there in silence, slightly shaken by all that has been played out before him. 

The play is a unique response from a man who has grown up in a repressive country that seeks to control and demand obedience from its population.  He has shown us there is always a choice…but do we have the courage to make it or will we continue to obey without question?  Have you ever bucked a trend…made a choice that was unconventional? If you haven’t, then ask yourself…are you living life as a white rabbit?  Is it time to make that change?

This simple act has made Steven famous in Kinsale.  As I walk up to the front of the church, the actor and others in the audience are congratulating him for his courage and thanking him for walking forward.  As we walk to the bus stand perfect strangers stop to talk…to shake his hand.  We come back to Kinsale the next day and the same thing is repeated.  Steven has now officially had his 15 minutes of fame. 

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 

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