BBC News

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour sees his own play

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

image captionNassim Soleimanpour wrote White Rabbit Red Rabbit in 2010

The play White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been performed around the world and translated into 15 languages since 2011. But its writer Nassim Soleimanpour had never seen it - until this month.

Every time White Rabbit Red Rabbit was staged, Soleimanpour requested that a front row seat was reserved for him.

But it remained empty each time.

The Iranian playwright could not get a passport because he refused to do national service. So he devised a play that could travel the world without him.

Not only could it take flight without its writer, it also needed no director and Soleimanpour specified that a different actor should perform it every night and should not see the script before stepping onto the stage.

So far, Juliet Stevenson, Tamsin Greig, Arthur Darvill and film-maker Ken Loach have taken the plunge and taken part, and it has been seen in London, Edinburgh and New York, among other places.

"It has been in Brazil, it has been translated into Kurdish, it's going to be performed in Egypt," Soleimanpour says.

image captionComedian Sarah Millican is among the figures performing White Rabbit Red Rabbit in Newcastle

"It has been translated into Korean, Chinese, French, it was in more than 10 cities in Canada, Colchester, London, now Newcastle."

At Newcastle's Live Theatre, Kevin Whatley, Stephen Tompkinson and Sarah Millican are among the actors who will be handed the script on different nights during its run.

Because he could not travel, Soleimanpour devised an ingenious plot to make his voice heard.

Once the actor starts reading his words, the "crazy" writer drags both actor and audience into a strange, gripping post-modern thriller that blurs fiction and reality.

The instructions delivered to the actors 48 hours before their performance begin: "1) Do not see or read the play beforehand. Learn nothing about it.

"2) Prepare an ostrich impersonation."

Using a menagerie of allegorical animals, the show plays with ideas of power and manipulation in society.

Despite references in the play to his restrictions at home, Soleimanpour says: "It's not about Iran. People in the western world, no offence, they like to think that we are so bored with our country.

"What I was talking and thinking about was a social thing, which works for Iran and works for London. It worked in 2010 and right now works in 2013.

"I'm sorry and sick of hearing that I'm writing about my country. I'm writing about a social phenomenon, which is obedience."

During the play, Soleimanpour explains, via whichever actor is the conduit for his words that particular night, that he cannot deliver the lines himself because he does not have a passport.

That was true when the play was written in 2010. Soleimanpour says he refused the two years of obligatory national service because he did not want to interrupt his theatre career. "Doing military service could easily screw the whole situation," he says.

But when he went for a health check-up about a year ago, he discovered he was exempt.

"Miraculously, I was diagnosed with an eye disorder in my left eye, which invalidates me for the service," he says, adding with a laugh: "Fortunately, I'm half blind."

So he got a passport and, 10 days ago, saw White Rabbit Red Rabbit for the first time in person, in Brisbane.

"The first night, I was freaked out," he says. "I didn't like the play. Three years had passed. I think I can write a better play right now.

"But the second night I couldn't stop myself - I stood up, I asked the actor if I could go to the stage, I jumped onto the stage, I told everybody that I am Nassim Soleimanpour and then I told everybody that it's time for this writer in the past to meet myself in the present."

So there was an actor reading the words of the 2010 version of Soleimanpour, when the 2013 Soleimanpour jumped out of his seat and interrupted his own story.

At this point, the tangled timelines and overlapping temporal existences feel like they could cause a rupture in the space-time continuum at any moment.

image captionActor Shaun Prendergast kicked off the run at Newcastle's Live Theatre

"I was sitting in the audience, I knew this writer, I knew him very closely. Biologically I'm him. I'm not him any more," Soleimanpour says.

"But I knew that he is persisting to tell everybody that you have to redefine your red lines. You have to think of borders of obedience. You should not be trapped in a cage in a play.

"I myself was trapped in my own play, which was so scary. I thought, I should not stand up and talk, because I can simply screw the whole success of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, and that scared me to death.

"I thought, OK, I have to jump on the stage, because I'm not that writer any more, so we have to meet.

"I became a red rabbit. I had a chance to bite the carrot. Since you haven't seen the play, that won't make any sense to you right now."

The point he is trying to make - both in the play and this interview - is that people should not be afraid of making a leap into the unknown in order to break out of their passive if comfortable routines.

With that all perfectly clear, will Soleimanpour now update the script to reflect the fact that he finally has his passport and can travel?

"I know how to change the play, I can do it. But I'm more happy not to do it. I'll just keep it as something which belongs to the past. A good memory."

Although the script will stay the same, theatregoers can expect the writer to jump up from the audience to meet his former self more often from now on.