Review: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit – a one-of-a-kind absurdist experiment

Erin Harrington reviews White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, presented by JMO Theatrics, at Little Andromeda, Wednesday 13 April 2022.

It is hard to write about White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, presented at Little Andromeda by JMO Theatrics, as anything said could stray into a violation of its central conceit.

What we do know, and can say: Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour wrote this absurdist monologue twelve years ago at a time when he was not allowed to leave the country. He had refused to do compulsory military training, and was thus denied a passport. It has since been performed thousands of times, across dozens of countries, continuing to proliferate and provoke, even while Soleimanpour is now free, making theatre in Berlin.

Also, it contains rabbits.

An actor who knows nothing of its content – but who has been told to prepare an animal impression – opens the script on stage in front of the audience, then does a cold reading. It’s nerve-wracking stuff – a high-trust model. They must acquiesce to the author, who thus travels to us, this new audience, using this voice and body as an intermediary. Soleimanpour frames his work as a theatre machine: a type of automated process, with an input and an output. Through this play he was able to speak, and to travel the world, but also confront us with questions: about theatre as a type of art, and how the form can be weaponised, turned back against itself. We are reminded, frequently, about the feedback loop between the past and the present. As such, this is a play about power, consent, and participation, as well as censorship and freedom.

Our performer is Tom Eason, an actor whose physicality and empathy I greatly admire. Some of the play is very funny and silly; some of it is not. He must deal with the content and implications of the text in real time, and he’s a terrific reader, quick and responsive, often tender. Each actor will bring something different: Eason’s performance sits in tension between high energy comedy and movement, and quiet vulnerability.  

I attend with an Iranian friend and we have to spend a bit of time debriefing. A confession: I saw an exquisitely uncomfortable, affecting performance of this work some time ago. My friend, who has never seen the show, tells me about the familiarity and sickness she feels at parts of the play – its highly-specific expression of a creativity that is bound but not gagged by repressive regimes, its sense of place, her deep knowledge of the pain at its centre.

And we both come away quite discomforted by the experience, largely because of the extremely enthusiastic reactions of some members of the audience, which is dominated by young (and sometimes loud) performing arts students from the institution Eason teaches at. If this play is a theatre machine, this is a key component: I’ve rarely experienced a performance where I felt more shaped by the input of the audience than that of the script or performer. A play that requires audience participation to make points about control, complicity and fear feels different when that audience is stacked with people who love to perform, and to cheer for people performing, no matter what’s being said or done. I admit I am a little stunned at the end that it’s a quick clap, a whoop and out the door, instead of a charged moment of contemplation. It’s morally challenging.

This iteration of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, raises quite different questions for me about the interaction (and the contract) between author, actor, audience, and producers than the one I saw eight years ago. I even wonder whether the audience should know which performer they are getting.

Part of the play’s alchemy is that each performance, with each new actor (and their instincts, their habits) and new audience is a one-time only collective experience. But with large sections of this audience I think – are we even listening to the same words? Are we watching the same play? What would change with a different room? It’s clear Eason is quite overcome with emotion early on – we see his tears as he maintains his composure – but would a different audience allow us all, Eason included, to sit with these feelings more, and not seek refuge in comedy and performance? AITA?

But it doesn’t matter, really, maybe? It’s worth seeing, and the experience of the next actor, and the next audience, will be their own.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit runs until Sunday 17 April, 2022. A list of performers can be found here.

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