After two years, Til has finally decided to end the embargo on her review of the startling production of Red Rabbit, White Rabbit at the Malthouse.
Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s first play, Red Rabbit, White Rabbit, is not conventional theatre. The stagecraft is simple. Inside the Malthouse’s Beckett theatre, the ground stage, surrounded by tiered audience seating on three sides, contains a chair, a table, two glasses of water and a ladder. The house lights remain on. In walks an actor, or rather, a reader, holding an envelope and a small bottle of white powder. The reader has never seen the script inside the envelope before. The performers are Rodney Afif, Alison Bell, Alan Brough, Shareena Clanton, Daniela Farinacci, Ming-Zhu Hii, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Caroline Lee, Brian Lipson, Catherine McClements, Genevieve Morris, Brian Nankervis and Sam Pang, and the project curator is Janice Muller. It is a motley crew of Australian personalities, actors and comedians, all capable of performing to an unseen text.
The play pulls the audience in quite literally. People are numbered off and then called upon as the show goes on – required to pour poison, act as talking animals, and ultimately choose the fate of the actor. This forced interaction – and it is forced, plenty of those called upon were uncomfortable and hesitant – pushes the audience into the spotlight alongside the reader. The audience are witnesses, they are responsible, and Soleimanpour wants them to know it. The plot of the play is difficult to recount, as it flits between monologue, dialogue and direction. Thematically, the playwright has the audience in a chokehold, discussing suicide, morality and conformity.
Soleimanpour’s voice is clear throughout the play. As a conscientious objector, he has not completed the 2 years military service compulsory to gain a passport and leave Iran. John Leary acts as his mouthpiece, his means of reaching out from the pages, from Tehran, to his audience. Writing is a form of freedom, a way to travel. Leary handles the piece well, bringing his own comedy and dorky personality to the script. He mirrors the audience’s reactions by expressing his own uncertainties – is there the remote possibility that he will die during this performance?
The answer is, of course, no. The play is making a point about the necessity of dissent, rebellion against convention, audience members breaking the fourth wall, screaming at the actor not to do as the script demands. However, the relative safety of an alternative playhouse in a large city renowned for its edgy art, there is an unexpected extra element to this anti conformity: being seen to not conform. Inside the theatre, the audience are still aware of their context. By standing up and yelling “don’t drink!” they are declaring that they are willing to fight the mainstream for the sake of another’s right to life. Yet they are standing in safety, in a country that respects their right to do so. Taking the moral high ground poses no threat to their lives – they are free to break theatrical convention, and they do so in a city that loves nothing more. Perhaps they speak up in the knowledge that they will be praised for doing so.