Monday, September 8, 2014

Theatre: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

Perth Theatre Company
Written by Nassim Soleimanpour
Sound and lighting designer Joe Lui
With solo performers, including Sam Longley and Hayley McElhinney
STC Studio until September 13

On a black stage there are a wooden stepladder, a chair and a table, on which are placed two glasses of water, a teaspoon and an envelope.
A solo performer enters with a small vial of white powder and opens the envelope.
It contains the script of the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. The performer hasn’t seen it before and, apart from a very basic briefing (“you will be asked to impersonate an ostrich”), doesn’t know what to expect.
There’s little the spoiler convention allows me to tell you about what happens thereafter, but I can at least explain something of why it does.

Until recently, Soleimanpour has had no passport—he refused compulsory military service—and was unable to leave Iran. So he speaks to the audience through the performer, who must say, and do, exactly what his script directs.
Much of that involves an extended allegory about life in our envy-driven, dog-eat-dog (well, white rabbit-attacks-red rabbit) world, underpinned by a growing sense of menace, fatalism and urgency.
There’s little doubt, behind the game-playing and animal stories, that Soleimanpour is giving us an insight into the interesting times of someone who’s come to the attention of those in authority. He warns us that he may not be around by the time we see his play, and lists the many events that might lead to his disappearance.
If this is unknown to us when the play begins, it is to the performers as well. They may not be trapped in the actor’s nightmare—they have a script in front of them—but they don’t know where it will take them, or how to approach it.
That produced very different performances on the two nights I saw the show.
Using all the practised poise of his improv experience and off-the-cuff humour, Sam Longley played things, if not exactly for fun, at least for games. Because the script is so playful, this approach succeeded, even when it was a little at odds with the darkening tone of the text.
Hayley McElhinney, two nights later, was far less comfortable. An actor of great skill and magnetism, she was disconcerted by some of Soleimanpour’s instructions (quite often pointing to the script, as if to say “don’t blame me, it’s here in black and white”). Though she gave powerful treatment to the play’s later monologues, she was visibly relieved when it was all over.
Which is no criticism of her, or this singular, intriguing piece of theatre. I’m sure there’ll be more Longleys, and more McElhinneys to come (among future performers are, courageously, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, Alison van Reeken, Kymba Cahill and Monica Main)
And there will be many in the audience who’ll come back to see it again.

This review appeared in The West Australian 5.9.14    

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