Saturday, October 26, 2013

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

With just how little can one make a piece of theatre? With a word? An empty space? An agreement? Perhaps a single metaphor is enough.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was written in 2010, one year after the 'Green Revolution' that swept Iran, by an Iranian playwright who cannot leave his own country. It takes the form of a part appeal, part wide-ranging monologue from its narrator, writer Nassim Soleimanpour, employing the voice and body of a different actor each night, who has never read the play - on Thursday night played by dramaturg and Israeli national Ariel Nil Levy.

House lights on, and somewhat awkward introductory formalities over, the actor opens the envelope and begins to read. We are immediately addressed by the author of the play - lamenting his English skills, describing his surroundings, and giving occasional instructions to the actor.

Cue a suite of meta-theatrical devices, shaped in a kind of 'load the gun, fire it, repeat' loop, which call attention to how theatre functions whilst acting as loose metaphors for the context of the writer.

Given that the writer lives in Iran, it's a surprisingly amicable text. Where it would have been perhaps accurate, given, say, the brutal crackdown in the wake of the 2009 protests, to offer the audience a violent silence - we get a surprisingly generous monologue, hinting at some ideas relating to human behaviour under oppression, occasionally calling on the audience to participate, ever-careful never to put us offside. Occasional precarious moments - a list of the methods of suicide and the prevailing metaphor of the 'red rabbit' - are never left long enough for the audience to dwell on them. Essentially, it's a series of set-ups, a cycle of call and response, wheeled out one-by-one throughout the course of the evening.

This might be satisfying to some audiences, but this is where my response takes a turn to the dark side, because: I hate it. In a world that is customised to our satisfaction, built to satisfy our needs, in a world where desires are manufactured, voids to be filled by the next new product,  I think it is not only counter-productive but downright dangerous to play this game in the theatre. The loaded gun is certainly powerful - ask Chekhov - but best used sparingly, lest an audience leave the theatre with little more than a ticked box - an itch created, then scratched.

To be fair, the writer is not from this world. Iran is a country steeped in its own long traditions - in many ways its own world. This is a play written in English, unashamedly for Western audiences, and so sits at this interesting intersection. The mythologies about The West that are built up in Iran are powerful - western TV, for example, officially prohibited in Iran but widely available, offers a skewed window into a world of satisfaction - and if the play reveals anything, it's not Iran, but how Iran sees the West.

For a text which outwardly claims to be from a country that is oppressive, as selectively hinted at by the text (the writer, for example, implores an audience to take notes to act as a legal document in case he is shot), there is a question of for whom the text is speaking - who does it serve? Initially, I thought, surely it is the country itself. As the night wore on, I whittled this down to 'the individual', optimistically hoping for a Beckettian, Orwellian or Ionescoian argument. Finally, I was left with, sadly, only the writer himself.

This conclusion is ironic, given one of the implications of the titular story, which forms the axis of the play, is 'competition', presumably the ills thereof. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit refers to an experiment performed by the writer's uncle -  white rabbits attack a red rabbit when the red rabbit is successful at getting a carrot. After a time, you can remove the carrot - the rabbits still attack. It's a somewhat ambiguous metaphor. Without any clear target - one assumes it refers to the writers political context, and learned behaviour continuing beyond its logical endpoint. But likewise, it may well be a reference to the world outside of Iran, the world of his audience, which after all, is governed by Adam Smith's invisible hand.

It's a fine line between honesty and exploitation, between speaking that which cannot be said, and tugging on the heart-strings of a manipulable, pliable audience, and so compounding that which you sought to contest. There are certainly real people suffering in Iran, I've no doubt Nassim is one of them, mostly from a political mechanism beyond their control, (including a grass-roots populist sabre-rattler whose term has now thankfully - and it must be said, relatively quietly - ended) and crippling economic sanctions that are quickly devastating a mobile, educated middle class.

The stakes are high. These are people desperately in need of a voice - which makes the eagerness of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit to please my decadent western ears all the more disappointing.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
by Nassim Soleimanpour
English Theatre Berlin 
Oct 24 - Nov 1

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