Nassim Soleimanpour is not allowed to leave Iran. His play, with no director, no rehearsals and no set, draws attention to his status as a censored writer
Modern theatre audiences have become accustomed to being told to switch off their mobile phones before the start of a play; but those attending White Rabbit, Red Rabbit – a new work from 29-year-old Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour at the Gate theatre in London – are specifically instructed to keep their phones turned on.
Soleimanpour is not allowed to leave his native Iran, as he is a conscientious objector who has refused to take part in military service, which is mandatory for all Iranian men. Unable to travel, Soleimanpour has turned his isolation to his own advantage with a play that is written in English but which requires no director, no set and a different actor for each performance. Each performer – among them comedians Mark Watson and Tom Basden and actors Juliet Stevenson, Tamsin Greig and Janet Suzman – read Soleimanpour's script for the first time on stage. "The audience are given my email address during the show," the playwright explained via email from Iran, "and they can send me photographs and notes by mobile phone."
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is an absurdist adventure which sits on the boundary of comedy and drama. "It began with a nightmare seven years ago that I killed myself on stage in front of an audience that included my parents," said Soleimanpour, who grew up in Shiraz and now lives in Tehran. An early version was performed last spring in New York; its debut in Britain was last year, during the Edinburgh fringe. It is being staged at the Gate as a co-production with Lift – the London International Festival of Theatre.
Tom Basden performed in the play, which is being performed six times across three Sundays, last weekend. "I knew virtually nothing about it," he said. "It was really intriguing and a very low-tariff gig as I didn't have to do any rehearsing – as a comedian I am used to doing gigs with very little preparation." Basden was sent an email 48 hours before he was due on stage explaining that he needed to bring a bottle of water, telling him he mustn't drink from the glasses on the stage – and that he needed to prepare an animal impression. At the start of the afternoon, Basden was introduced on stage by Gate artistic director Chris Haydon, who handed the performer the script.
"Having the actor not see the script beforehand gives you a profound sense of the writer's voice in the room," explained Haydon. "The spontaneity of an actor reading a script for the first time and discovering it with the audience gives complete authority and power to the writer's voice, and the way that voices control people is an intrinsic theme in the play."
"It takes you by surprise because it is so funny and silly at the start," said Basden, "and then things start to develop which are quite surprising and dramatically interesting: at the heart of it is the idea of someone trying to speak through someone else and the question of what censorship means."
For the performers taking part the role requires no reading, rehearsal and no preparation – but it also demands a faith in a script they will not have previously seen. "We tried to excite the actors with the idea that it was a mad and foolhardy thing to do, and all our performers are predisposed to take those risks," Haydon adds.
Juliet Stevenson, who will be appearing at the Gate on 24 June, says: "It is unlike anything I have ever done before but I like jumping out of the comfort zone – it is good to do something that is a bit scary." Stevenson has, through her activism on behalf of refugees and PEN, long been interested in giving voice to those whose own voices have been silenced, and the position of Soleimanpour – who she described as a "censored writer who is not allowed to travel" – was part of the appeal for agreeing to take part. "Plus I have the perfect excuse if it doesn't go well," she added. "because I can say that I am under-rehearsed."
After the show Basden declared it had been good fun. "There were bits I really enjoyed and bits where I was concentrating on not losing the rhythm. If I ever had the chance to do it again I would really nail it." There was an empty seat in the front row of the Gate theatre during Basden's performance as there will be all future performances – a visual acknowledgement of the absent playwright.