White Rabbit, Red Rabbit or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Trust Nassim

The Absolut Fringe Festival 2012 has run its course, but before it moves the last of its furniture out of the Festival Hub, to make way for our Dublin Theatre Festival coverage tomorrow, here’s one final piece to savour. Peter Daly was one of the actors to take on the challenge of Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental White Rabbit, Red Rabbit – here, he reflects on the experience

I am standing just off stage in the New Theatre in Temple Bar and am listening out for my name. The wonderful producer Aisling O’Brien is giving me an over-the-top introduction and I am now glad that my mother is in the audience. When I hear my name, I am to come on stage, accept a sealed envelope and begin.

I am the third of 10 performers to do this during the Absolut Fringe run of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, and I am following some pretty big names in Irish theatre. I have heard that they were amazing; it isn’t helping my nerves.

My body is telling me how ridiculous it considers this idea by pumping adrenaline through my veins and screaming at me: “Are you out of your mind? You know nothing about this play and you are about to perform it in front of a full house. This is madness. Just walk out the back door. Go underground for a few months, a year at most. In time, people will forgive you. Some may even forget what a coward you are.”

But it is too late. I am now standing on stage, rictus smile on face, accepting the envelope from Aisling, who may or may not be saying something (I honestly can’t remember), and who then goes to sit down.

The audience is applauding. I have to assume it is my stupidity that they are celebrating.

I am now alone on stage. I give the audience a cheesy grin. I am being cheap. I am hoping I will win them over by letting them know that I know how ridiculous this proposition is and that we all know it will never work. They laugh. Never underestimate cheapness.

I much-too-carefully place the envelope beside the two glasses of water on the single small table on stage. It is a delaying tactic. I feel that until I read the first line on the first page that I won’t have really started. And if I haven’t started, I haven’t yet begun to fail.

I look at the audience again and raise an eyebrow as if to say, here we go. Again they give a small laugh. It relaxes me. It suggests that there is a chance that they want this to work as much as I do.

I see my mother sitting bang in the middle of the front row staring up at me. She is not really smiling. She is wondering what is going to happen next. Much like me I suppose.

No rabbits were harmed in the making of this play. Actors, on the other hand …

I read the first line aloud: “Okay. So I have opened the envelope. I’ve begun to read, and I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

So far, so very accurate. This writer chap Nassim seems to know what he is about. Okay, I’ll go on.

And I do. For the next hour or so I am lucky enough to tell a compelling story to a very open and enthusiastic audience. Actually, it is a story with many stories inside. It involves rabbits, bears, ostriches and cheetahs. It is violent in parts. And it is cleverly funny in others.

Bananas become carrots. Audience members become stenographers, cameramen and time keepers. Our imaginations are ever so gently expanded.

It is skilfully constructed to slightly humiliate me, the performer, on more than one occasion. But it doesn’t allow the audience to simply passively enjoy this. The cast of this one-performer-play swells and very soon we are all implicated.

This play poses many questions. Some are direct questions to the audience who are expected to respond. My mother answers most of these quite unselfconsciously from her prime position. It’s as if we having a chat in her kitchen at home and I love her for it. Other questions suggest themselves sub-consciously and I carry them around with me in the days that follow.

Nassim wrote this play to travel the world in his place. He did this because, having refused to do military service in his country of Iran, they in turn refused him a visa. It is written so that it needs no director, no rehearsal and no set.

In each place it is performed, the actors are given a list of simple instructions. The first of which is “Do not see or read the play beforehand. Learn nothing about it.” (The second is “Prepare an ostrich impersonation.”)

From conversations I had with friends, strangers (and my mother) afterwards, the performance reaches a point when the audience no longer really sees the actor on stage, stumbling over Nassim’s words. Instead, they find themselves in the middle of a direct conversation with this young Iranian writer. Without being too dramatic, it is transcendent.

I won’t give away the ending of this amazing work. I hope that someday you might have the opportunity to see it yourself. Or even better, to perform it. And if you do, you can rest assured that more than one person will inquire after your health in the days that follow.

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