Mumbai-based theatreperson Atul Kumar won’t perform White Rabbit, Red Rabbit again. Neither can actor Ali Fazal. One might wonder why, but the answer was already set in stone when they took up the project. One of Nassim Soleimanpour’s, the 34-year-old Iranian playwright, many diktats for staging this play, which he conceptualised in 2010, is that no performer can play the part more than once. Kumar and Fazal had performed during the Writers’ Bloc Festival in Mumbai in April this year.
Since the play’s first presentation — in 2011, UK-based Volcane Theatre co-produced its world premiere, and it was staged simultaneously at Edinburgh Fringe Festival — actors such as Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane and Josh Radnor have performed the 60-minute solo act, and have stuck to this rule.
As White Rabbit, Red Rabbit gets ready for an India tour of about 30 shows, one of the prime concerns of its organisers, the Mumbai-based Q Theatre Production (QTP), is to line up as many actors as possible. During the selection process, the organisers had to exclude even those who had watched the play this year in Mumbai. The upcoming shows in India will have actors Sohrab Ardeshir, Meher Acharia Dar and Anu Menon, playwright and comic Anuvab Pal and theatre personality Arundhati Nag, among others, attempting the text. The opening act, on August 16, will see a starry start, with Richa Chadda performing the text at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. Later this year, the play will travel to Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore.
At the time of writing it, Soleimanpour was not in possession of a passport, nor was he allowed to leave his country for refusing to complete the two-year mandatory military service. In his twenties and unable to travel out of Tehran, the writer spent six years scripting the play. At the same time, he was keen on experimenting with the traditional format of theatre. So, he laid down instructions for the organisers and actors, and kept the content of the play under wraps. The play, thus, doesn’t require a set, rehearsals or a director.
The travel ban dictates much of the structure and content of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. “My fears have always fed my thoughts,” says Soleimanpour. “Why do I get scared when I’m experiencing something new? Why do I hate myself when I obey the power and don’t have the strength to simply disagree? These were notions that I had been struggling with during the six years of writing White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. At the same time, I have always had big questions about the structure of theatre as a medium. Why memorise the lines? Why repeat them and pretend that they’re new? Why pretend at all?”
Now a global hit, the play — an absurdist plot that borders on humour and drama— tampers with the linearities of modern theatre. The play’s script is handed over to the performer on stage only after the third bell goes off. The performer reads from it, enacts and interacts with the audience. During the course of the play, the actor has to “move like a cheetah pretending to be an ostrich, disturbed by a rabbit controlled by a bear”. The fourth wall, an established convention of proscenium theatre, breaks in the beginning itself, when the audience becomes a part of the performance. The narrative shifts and alters as well — fun and light-hearted in the beginning, quickly moving to a sombre setup that revolves around social conditioning and the human tendency to obey. Towards the end, a question hangs heavy in the performance space as well as in the audiences’ mind. But the show isn’t over yet; the dramatist continues to engage with the audience, encouraging them to mail him photos of the show and write to him.
Born in Tehran to a novelist father and painter mother in 1981, Soleimanpour fell in love with the “magic of theatre” early in life. “It’s nice but not very easy to live in a family of bookworms. They spoiled almost every book by discussing it over dinner,” he says, “I think I fell for drama due to the magic of encountering the live audience. That’s a kind of magic other art forms lack,” says the dramatist, who quit his engineering course at the age of 22 to study drama at the University of Tehran.
In White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, the actor is seen as an intermediary, helping the writer communicate with the audience. But Soleimanpour doesn’t entirely agree with that description. “Any performer in my play contributes in the direction and even writing. My very recent play, Blank, is a good example. That’s why I always say that an actor is something more than an actor. He must be an ‘actor plus’,” he says. Blank literally denotes “blank” spaces, left to be “filled in” by a performer before a live audience. In another, Blind Hamlet, he does away with the actor. Instead, it has a voice-recorder facing an audience that asks the attendees to get up on stage and accuse each other.
It was White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, the third to be written by Soleimanpour and his first in English, which brought him international acclaim. “My thoughts have always been intercultural. Language has always been the main subject in my work,” he says, “Right now, I’m busy working on a tour in which I will perform in the language of the local audience. If I want to stage this show in a country like India, I might have to learn a few languages .”
The travel ban on Soleimanpour was lifted in 2012, when a disorder in his left eye was detected. Since then, he has made Berlin his home. “I’m working on new projects in London, Berlin and Copenhagen. It’s easier for me, my family and everyone if I stay in Europe for some time,” he says.
In his upcoming works, the theatreperson wants to continue his engagement with deconstructing the proscenium structure. “Theatre is needed more than ever these days. With the invention of radio, we learnt to become a passive audience. Later on, television came along and we forgot to face each other. And we didn’t stop. We invented notebooks, smartphones and 4G internet. How can theatre be inflexible in times like these? It has changed in the course of history and it will experience more changes in the future,” says the playwright, who plans on visiting India later this year to conduct a workshop.