Monday 30 December 2013

'White Rabbit Red Rabbit' at the English Theatre Berlin

White Rabbit Red Rabbit, by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpou, challenges us to evaluate the extent of our autonomy and examine the role we play in the world. Soleimnanpou achieves this by turning the mechanisms of theatre in upon themselves:  there is never a director, there are no rehearsals, and a different actor takes the lone role every night. The stage is the same each time: a chair, a ladder, two glasses of water, a vial, and, in a sealed envelope, the script.

In the case of the English Theatre Berlin, where White Rabbit Red Rabbit played for four nights in November, the script was brought on stage by the artistic director, and handed with quivering fingers to that night’s actor, both smiling gleefully. The artistic director introduced the actor and says, ‘I will leave you in his hands …’ and shuffles backwards into the wings.  

The theatre is still with excitement. The forth wall is broken as the actor cheerily introduces himself to us in his own, improvised words, diffusing any awkwardness as he fiddles with the envelope, attempting to extract the script. He tells us he is nervous. He finally manages to open the envelope, takes out the script, and begins.

Of course we are not really in our actor’s hands at all. We are all in the hands of Soleimanpou. There is an empty seat in the front row reserved for him. It is he who is to guide us blindly through the evening, and it is he that addresses us directly when our actor beings to speak.   

As a conscientious objector Soleimanpou is unable to leave Iran and is currently writing this play in his garden, so he tells us, which is fucking hard. Where are you? This play is his way of travelling out of Iran. The idea of the play came from a dream he had of committing suicide on stage, and tonight, he tells us, it is the onstage suicide of our actor, that we may bear witness to. Dear actor, you didn’t know what you were letting yourself in for …

Our actor makes comical aghast expression and the audience laugh and he continues to read.

He paces up and down the stage as Soleimnapou tell us more about himself and his motives for writing this play, our actor dropping each white, double-spaced page to the floor as he goes. Soleimanpou tells our actor to give each member of the audience a number, and then call No. 9 up on to the stage.  No. 9, a blonde girl of about that many years, happens to be our actor’s daughter.  We are told that the vial on the table contains poison, and are all, save for father and daughter, under Soleimanpou’s direction, requested to close our eyes while the latter pours the contents of that vial into one of the glasses of water.

At the end of the night the actor will have to choose one of those glasses to drink from. They are left to stand on the table behind him.

Amongst chuckles and cooing his daughter returns to her seat and the evening continues. More audience members are invited up on stage, white rabbits who must hide their ears, and bears that ensure that they do. No. 23 is a wonderfully meek white rabbit, and No. 41 a suitable stern bear and under our actor’s direction we follow them into Soleimanpou’s circus where there are leopards pretending to be ostriches and ostriches pretending to be leopards, and bears who have fallen on to the stage and so pretend to be leopards pretending to be ostriches, so not to upset the play.

And then the ladder is brought to centre stage and more numbers are called out, and more members of the audience called up. They are all white rabbits, and when our actor fires the starting gun four of them shuffle and smile sheepishly around the ladder, while one leaps up to the top to grab the prize, and there is both supportive laughter and distrustful applause at such boldness.

Soleimanpou is telling us about his uncle. And he continue this process until all the rabbits in the cage were new. They continue to attack each rabbit that ascended the ladder, even though not one of them knew the reason why they did it, other than ‘that is what is done here’.

An iPhone is summoned and a picture is taken of our four white rabbits and one red rabbit standing next to our actor and Soleimanpou asks that it be sent to him. I would love to see you all.

The members of the audience return to their seats but the ladder remains on stage and under it the table with the two glasses of water. Soleimanpou regularly brings out attention back to the ominous pair, but our actor is no methodist and so rolls his eyes whenever suicide is spoken of. It’s only a play after all. Suicide? Ha!  

It’s only a play after all.

Just a play? Soleimanpou challenges us.  But what if, what if … People don’t really die in plays, we know this. Yet each time our actor is addresses as ‘Dear actor’ and we are addressed as ‘Dear audience’, and we see another page of script fall to the ground, this becomes less of a play. Each time the suspension of disbelief is broken, the possibility of ‘what if’ blooms in front of us once more. For if this isn’t a play, what exactly is it? And what exactly are we doing here? What if there is poison in the vial? What if the daughter does hold a grudge? What if there was a great conspiracy? What if this isn’t just a play?

Ah! but come now, it is just a play! And the actor must diligently play his role, read his lines, until we leave the theatre at the end of the evening. That is how this works. What is left of our actor if he is not to act?

And yet, likewise, if we too play out part and deign to believe, we are to witness a suicide tonight. And if we decide not to believe, we decide not to care, and we leave our actor and the empty glass, and the shadow of the theatre hangs over us.

Night is closing in, and the excitement we can hear in Soleimanpou’s voice tells us that the moment when the actor must choose which glass to drink is approaching. He tells our actor to put the pages of the script down. Who will take them up? Who will finish the play? Who is our red rabbit? There is silence in the auditorium, and it is still once more. Our actor has no more lines to read and so cannot dispel the tension. The script lies on the floor and we wait for someone to pick it up.

Why would anyone dare put their neck out? Why, when so much comfort is gained by settling into the crowd? Why when we simply want to fit, and to belong? To rest in peace with hearthside contentment? I will sit still. I will not make a fuss. I will excuse, and qualify, and maybe, if there is no hope, say, ‘Well then, next time …’  

So the two glasses are placed in front of us as well. We have two options. Firstly, though ignoble, and selfish, and cowardly, we are offered a way out, if things were ever to get too bad. A way to pull the curtain cord, announce the end, drop our script and end the treadmill of suffering.  Secondly, we could try and save the actor? We could storm the stage. We could tear the script, and break the vial, knock over the glasses and with rabid eyes and bared teeth destroy the theatre. We could smash up the empty, reserved seat, while the frantic artistic director hops about in the wings: ‘Naturalism! Next season, only naturalism!’

But this will never happen. The artistic director will return in comfort to the lobby, and take a drink with the actor, two glasses in front of them, and his daughters and partner. We will leave the stage, and return to the world. But White Rabbit Red Rabbit will not leave us. For if the world truly is a stage, and we merely players, then all the world’s a cage.

And the script sits on the floor of the theatre and we wait for someone to pick it up.

Bertie Digby Alexander

Berlin 2013

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