White Rabbit, Red Rabbit: An Actor’s Nightmare is an Audience’s Dream


Emily Warner (sher/her) and Cara Doherty (she/her) review Nassim Soleimanpour's absurdist play

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Image by Emily Warner

By Emily Warner and Cara Doherty

Cara: Like presumably much of the audience, we entered Theatre@41 for White Rabbit, Red Rabbit wide-eyed and thoroughly unprepared for what we were about to experience. The press release was sparse, the advertisements even sparser and the simple staging – a chair, a table with two glasses of water and a small step ladder – answered nothing.
Nassim Soleimanpour’s play relies on one key principle: actors are given the script for the very first time as they step on to the stage. For runtimes longer than just one night, a different actor takes to the stage for each performance. The old cliché that every show is different has never been so true! I feared this might be a gimmick that quickly got old, but it proved itself to be crucial to the execution of the play and the most effective way to communicate its message.
I have never felt so nervous as an audience member; the basic level of trust that you have as a spectator that a performer will perform is stripped away by the play. Instead, audience members were invited onstage to participate. It felt a little like a recurring dream I always have: I’m sitting in the audience about to watch a play when I’m forced onstage to join in, publicly embarrassed for not knowing the words. It was interesting to see the effects of an audience knowing an actor is unprepared – the small studio space had quite a few empty seats but this nervous energy brought a buzz to the atmosphere that never once waned throughout the show.

Emily: Towards the end of the play, the script instructed the actor to stop reading, place the script on the stage and wait for a member of the audience to pick it up and begin reading. Thus ensued several tortuous minutes of complete silence; nobody volunteered, each member of the audience shooting furtive glances at their neighbours, wondering who would relent first. The moments stretched on until the actor was forced to step outside his role and address the audience, with a plea for their participation. In doing so, the theme of obedience and individual action underlying the play became starkly apparent. We were just a group of people, gathered in a room, witnessing a play whose entire existence depended on obedience to the author. Everyone there had a choice – to leave, to refuse the play's instructions, to change the script – yet nobody did; it is scary to step away from the crowd. When nobody volunteered to read the play, we demonstrated Nassim Soleimanpour’s point about individual action; that most people would prefer to blend in and be inconspicuous rather than risk the unknown.
The whole absurdist play works on a metaphorical level, to explore this theme. Embedded in the performance was an analogy about white rabbits and red rabbits, which described a group of white, hungry rabbits all fighting for a single carrot. In the experiment, the rabbit who reached the carrot first was painted red and the remaining rabbits doused with cold water. Over time, the white rabbits learnt to attack the red one, illustrating both the risk of taking individual action as well as the potential reward. Soleimanpour refers to the play as an “experiment” too, and the audience as “my white rabbits”. There was something unnerving about this comparison; as an audience we don’t feel coerced or manipulated when we see a play, until we are made aware of our own complacency. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander, Soleimanpour seemed to suggest, and when we witness death, suffering or tragedy in theatre we become complicit in it. He suggests that perhaps life is much the same.
Everything exists in the realm of possibility. Very rarely can we say that something is definite, or definitely not. More often, we are all stumbling blindly into an unknown future, which is the feeling this play replicated. Even the actor didn’t know how it would end, and by walking into the theatre every person was taking a risk.

There were a lot of dazed faces outside Theatre@41 once the performance had ended. We have a human tendency to make sense out of the senseless and no doubt everyone was grappling to understand such a baffling play. My mind was forming one interpretation after another, trying to place this “experiment” in a particular context, political movement or ideology but every facet of my English Literature degree failed me. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit denied interpretation. What it offered instead was possibility and I think that was precisely the point.

It offered Nassim Soleimanpour the possibility of travel and connection from his country, Iran, where he was confined by the government and his lack of passport. It invited the possibility of life and death and the possibility of interpretation in any time and place. Are you brave enough to take that risk and walk into the theatre?

Editor’s Note: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was performed on 8 November 2023, at Theatre@41.