Art of control by Iranian playwright

  • Arts
  • Monday, 10 Feb 2014

The artistic director of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is none other than award-winning thespian Jo Kukathas.

Forbidden to leave his country, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour scripts a masterpiece in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

IMAGINE a play with no rehearsals, no director and no sets.

Heck, the actors only get to see the script on performance day! And, each actor is permitted to star in the play once. Every night features a different actor so there’s always a new spin to the script. Such is the format of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, an original play by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, which will be staged at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPac) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, from Feb 19 to 23 by the Instant Cafe Theatre Company in association with Aurora Nova Productions. It heads up to Penang later (Feb 26-March 1).

Under the artistic direction of thespian Jo Kukathas, an unsuspecting and diverse Malaysian cast will perform this international award-winning play, including in-demand actor Ghafir Akbar (who also stars in the movie Cuak), Sharifah Amani, Ezra Zaid, Pete Teo, Iedil Putra, Anne James and others.

The artistic director of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is none other than award-winning thespian Jo Kukathas.

What’s the deal on stage? The scenario involves a rabbit going to the circus without a ticket. Volunteers are recruited from the audience and the actor reads, reacts and impersonates animals as directed. When the situation warrants, the individual also ad libs. The shows will be delivered in English, Mandarin or Malay here.

Soleimanpour wrote the play when he was forbidden to leave Iran for not doing military service a few years ago. He turned his isolation to his advantage. Asking deceptively simple questions about the nature of live art, his script secured rave reviews from critics and audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe 2011 in Britain.

The White Rabbit, Red Rabbit tale has been translated into 15 languages (since 2011).

“Military service is obligatory for boys in Iran. You have to participate as soon as you are 18. Many Iranian boys refuse that and bear with passport refusals as a result,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I learnt that I should stop complaining about my situation and think more deeply about it. That was how I realised I can use it to write a play about more profound limitations in one’s life.”

Originally written in English, Soleimanpour had intended to travel the world with the play. But it was not meant to be. The play travelled, but the writer remained in Tehran, Iran’s capital.

“It’s magical how our words can fly in time and space. It took me seven years to write White Rabbit. That’s enough to fantasise any success for your play. It hit the stage simultaneously at the Edinburgh Fringe and Toronto SummerWorks on Aug 5, 2011. That was a new day in my life,” he recalled.

That year, it garnered the Summerworks Outstanding New Performance Text Award, the Arches Brick Award and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and was a nominee at the Total Theatre Award and Brighton Festival Fringe Pick of Edinburgh Award. In 2012, it clinched the Dublin Fringe Festival Best New Performance.

Back then, the Washington Post review wrote: “It brings you into remarkably close contact with a real person who isn’t there, Iranian playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour. In a brilliant paradox, Soleimanpour exerts deliberate and near-total control over an actor and an audience from his own isolation in Tehran.”

Soleimanpour dissects the experience of a whole generation in a wild, funny and utterly fascinating play from Iran. Asked if the rabbit symbolises anything in Iranian culture, he would only reveal this: “Spoiler alert. It’s better to watch the play.”

The writer, who was short and crisp in his replies, possesses a peculiar sense of humour.

“Is Rabbit a comedy? Sometimes I’m funny even if I act so seriously. I often surprise myself and that makes comedies for others.”

An experienced public speaker and full-time writer, Soleimanpour is currently working on rewriting Hamlet for a London-based theatre. He hopes to open it there by June.

On the subject of travel, the good news is Soleimanpour now has a passport. He had a health check-up in 2012 in Tehran, and discovered he was exempt from national service (diagnosed with an eye disorder). No more limitations, then.

> White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be performed in either English, Mandarin or Malay, with no subtitles. It will be staged at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre from Feb 19 to 23 at 8.30pm (Wed-Sat) and 3pm (Sun). Visit for ticketing or call 03-4065 0001. It will continue its run at PenangPac, Straits Quay in Penang from Feb 26 to March 1 at 8.30pm (Wed-Fri) and 3pm (Sat). For more information, browse or call 04-899 1722 / 2722. All tickets are priced at RM48 and RM38 (students only).

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