“What a play… or something!”
It begins with a sealed envelope, an actor, two glasses of water and a phial of deadly poison. From there, Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour leads both his cast and his audience down the proverbial rabbit-hole with his experimental hit, WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT.
Despite premiering a decade ago, virtually every aspect of WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT is new. There is no rehearsal, no actor performs it more than once, and the actor never sees the play until they remove the script from a sealed envelope once they step onto the stage.
Such an approach to a live performance would be a daunting prospect for even the most experienced actors, but Outlander and The Crown star Tobias Menzies delivers the contents of this unseen script with calm composure throughout. Even the insults that Menzies hurls at Soleimanpour, cursing him for suddenly demanding that he play the part of a cheetah playing the part of an ostrich, are all there on the page for him.
At regular intervals throughout WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT, Menzies calls on members of the audience to participate, asking them to act out a short, seemingly nonsensical skit about a rabbit on an outing to the circus. Having never read the script before, this inevitably leads to occasional stumbles and slightly awkward pauses, but Menzies and his “volunteer” assistants carry this off with graceful levity.
What starts off as an almost nonsensical improvised storytelling, however, swiftly changes gears halfway through. Adopting the voice of Soleimanpour himself, Menzies brings the absent playwright into the theatre via a narrative full of personal details and thoughts. Soleimanpour, unable to leave his home country of Iran, ponders aloud through Menzies on themes of freedom and control, describing the act of writing as a timeless journey that connects him to his audiences – a concept that is, perhaps, more profound now than it could ever have been before March 2020.
From there, the tone of WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT becomes darker and more tense. , Through Menzies, Soleimanpour explores themes such as murder, suicide and human nature. As the monologue moves into its closing moments, the ambience is palpably tense, and a note of apprehension creeps into any laughter that the words provoke.
To explain the meaning behind the title WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT would be to give too much away. It is a play like no other, and one that rewards those willing to invest and persevere towards the heart of a truly thought-provoking experiment.
WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT is available to stream as part of Shedinburgh Fringe Festival’s 2020 Replay until 22 March. Tickets are available here.