Well, this is going to be tricky. A piece of theatre which asks reviewers not to discuss the detail of what happens in order to not to spoil the element of surprise for any future audience and, indeed, any future performer. More a piece of experimental theatre than something so mundane as a play, the work entitled White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been a theatrical sensation since it first emerged in 2011.
Performed in many countries it was particularly successful on Broadway and just two days ago was performed by over 100 actors worldwide to mark the anniversary of the day when most theatres had to shut down (in the UK we managed to hang on for a little longer). Yesterday a video captured performance from last summer’s Shedinburgh Festival started a run of encore screenings. It only had the one performance back then (unfortunately I was otherwise occupied) and this follows the pattern established during the last decade.
For the central conceit is that the actor involved each time comes at it with no preconceptions or knowledge of what to expect. No rehearsals, no direction, not even a preliminary reading is allowed. The performer simply opens a sealed envelope and gets on with it, reading the script and carrying out actions as specified by the writer Nassim Soleimanpour. Each performance, therefore, becomes entirely unpredictable and unique as the text reveals itself to actor and audience at the same time. Following in the footsteps of Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack, this particular iteration is interpreted by Tobias Menzies within the confines of a converted garden shed – not that that has anything to do with the actual play…or does it?
So, what can be revealed? Soleimanpour is based in Iran and, having refused to carry out compulsory military service, was denied permission to leave the country. White Rabbit Red Rabbit was his response to this and takes as its central themes notions of repression, censorship and the triangular and fluid relationship between writer, performer and audience – it has been a feature of the live performances to leave a front row seat empty as a symbol of the physical absence of the writer.
Yet through the script Soleimanpour is a manifest presence as both Menzies and his tiny (presumably socially distanced) audience engage with the text. For there is rather more audience participation than might be expected as they are brought up to share the playing space and become as much a part of the experience as the performer. There are even aspects in this recorded version where you can join in at home.
All of this is a subtle way of demonstrating our complicity as actions are regularly carried out with no questions being raised as to why – it is simply because the author/puppet master/state apparatus tells us to. There is a narrative of sorts and the piece starts with an extended allegory/fable which draws us into proceedings and captures our attention and imagination in the same way that might be used with a child. There is also a detailed account of a (fictional?) experiment which involves rabbits and making choices with repercussions which leads directly to the final section … but I’ve probably said too much and I wouldn’t want to give the game away for future audience or performers who might happen to be reading this.
Menzies does seem a little hesitant at first – totally understandable as it’s not clear whether he is playing himself, a character constructed by the writer or indeed the author himself, but the power of the piece soon draws him in and, as the experiment continues, he becomes rather more relaxed even when what he is asked to do involves him impersonating something which is impersonating something else (need to be deliberately vague here). Actually, he is in rather a unique position being, in a sense, the only actor to give repeat performances of this piece even if it is via a recording. Unlike anyone else his take on this can be replayed and analysed which, on reflection, may not be a great as it sounds. And, of course, that makes it different for the audience too. I recall seeing a performance of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, with which this piece shares some common ground, and being blown away by the concept. But for that I was present at a live performance and it is this uniqueness which would really have given Soleimanpour’s play and Menzies’ version of it a true sense of wonder and fascination. As it is, I couldn’t help thinking that knowing this is a recording which actually happened six months ago rather took the edge off proceedings. True it is captured live complete with any “mistakes” intact, but it perhaps lacks the true frisson that would come with seeing such a bold experiment live. That said, I was still glad to have had the experience rather than not – at least now I can appreciate what all the interest has been in this play and why it has been universally and deservedly hailed by performers and audiences alike.