Bush Theatre, London – until 16 September 2017
An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. A frank look at suicide, choice and learned behaviour unfolds after a menagerie of animal impressions.
An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. An hour of hilarious and revealing Mad Libs ensues.
An actor stands on stage. They are handed a script they have never read before. It’s a recipe that the actor must prepare whilst reflecting on the cultural importance and ritual of food.
An actor stands on stage. On the screen behind them, a script is projected they have never read before. Then there’s a live feed, a language lesson and a tender reflection on the meaning of home.
Inspired by the humour and spontaneity that comes from cold reading, Nassim Soleimanpour has developed what has become his trademark style of reflective, personal writing performed by an actor who knows nothing of the play. These four pieces currently running in rep, written over nearly a decade, are clearly siblings. Common structures and a prominent authorial presence genetically bring them together despite thematic and tonal differences.
His first play White Rabbit Red Rabbit became a global sensation in 2011. But Soleimanpour, then 29, didn’t see the play performed until 2013. A conscientious objector to his country’s compulsory military service, the Iranian writer wasn’t allowed a passport. After medical tests revealed he wouldn’t have been eligible anyway, he was granted the freedom to travel.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit, often misinterpreted as a political critique of the Iranian government, is the darkest of this body of work. It delves into death and societal conditioning within two distinct stories. The first of these, and the most interesting, is a metatheatrical look at the choice to die by giving the actor improvisational autonomy. There are two glasses of water on a table, and we are told one is poisoned. But is it really, or is it fiction? If it is real and the actor chooses to drink the poisoned glass, is the playwright a murderer? How does the audience know the actor is faking it or not? It’s a sombre reflection on the relationship between life, performance and death.
What is a simple premise is made much more complicated by attention drawn onto the performance itself and the absent writer. These are devices present in all of his works, perhaps harking back to Soleimanpour’s pre-passport days of instinctually wanting to participate in the process of bringing his texts to the stage. They are his calling card, and a wonderful disruption of theatrical convention. Rarely is the actual writer of a piece made character in theatre, let alone with such prominence. It presents as a sophisticated choice driven by Brechtian ideals, but with an inclusive impact rather than an alienating one. In White Rabbit Red Rabbit and Nassim it’s very much at the forefront of the script, but takes much more of a backseat in Cook and Blank.
It’s no coincidence then that Nassim and White Rabbit Red Rabbit are the stronger pieces. Thematically weighty and challenging audiences’ expectations with both form and content, they are intimate and personally revealing of both the performer and the writer. This makes for much more engaging productions and recalls the shared experience of conversational storytelling rather than the coldness of fourth walls.
Nassim is the most personal, with the title capturing the focus on Soleimanpour’s autobiography. We learn about his family, his wife and, now that he lives in Germany, his homesickness. It’s significantly more delicate and fragile, both in content and it’s reliance on technology. The blossoming relationship between the performer and author is a delight and one that feels like a most special thing to witness. I want to hug the rest of the audience by the end of the show.
Blank sits at the other end of the style spectrum from Nassim. It relies on a more improvisational structure that is hugely successful in Mel Giedroyc’s hands, though it’s easy to see that it won’t work as well with a less able performer at the helm. It also heavily involves a single audience volunteer. We are lucky that an actor offers to help; a less theatrical person may not have the instinct to entertain. They certainly won’t share a story about a threesome they had with the director and other actor of a Maltesers advert.
Though there is metatheatricality and authorial voice in Blank, it’s much less of a focus and can be easily dwarfed by the content and tone the performer contributes. There is wonderful potential in Blank, though. The subject matter and degree of seriousness is almost totally up to the performer. Due to it’s structure, this is the most wild card of the shows. It could be great. It could also be terrible.
Cook, coauthored with Jesper Pedersen, is the least polished. Whilst preparing a recipe in a pop-up kitchen on the stage, the script meanders through our relationship with food. But most of the comedy and engagement comes from the performer, here Mark Thomas, and his clumsiness. An audience member is again engaged, to help prepare the salad course in this play. Most moving is an imagery-laden reflection on the animals that eventually end up in the frying pan Thomas uses, but Soleimanpour barely appears in Cook, at least explicitly. He is missed very much, even though this play feels like a fun experiment and a reminder of the importance of food to group dynamics and families. Some theatrical acknowledgement does work its way in with the reminder that many of the world’s best plays are set in and around kitchens.
Soleimanpour proves he has created a formula that, whilst may not be to the taste of those that prefer their theatre naturalistic and firmly ignoring the audience, is as much of a homage to theatre and its writers as it is to the themes that appear in the plays. As theatricality is frankly discussed, the performances become anti-theatrical, intimate and funny. Across this cannon of four, there’s a showcase of not just the writer’s talent but the writer himself. It’s a potent device that reminds us to never forget those that make the entertainment, or indeed anything, that we take in.
The use of actors who have never encountered the scripts or plays before fosters mistakes, adding to this antitheatricality and immediacy. Their reactions and those of the audience volunteers, in their honesty, bring the audience together in moments that cannot be repeated. Though this is of course the case in all live performance, the effect is heightened here. That awareness of being part of something special and unrepeatable is the true magic of Soleimanpour’s work.
The Nassim Plays run through 16 September.
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