White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Nassim Soleimanpour cannot leave Iran. Only those who have completed their two years of military service are granted a passport, and he has not done his. Consequently, he has written a play; the play can leave the country and his words can travel to meet audiences across the world. The conceit of the piece is that it is to be performed by a different person every time. Each actor is given a sealed envelope on stage; they open it and read to us from the script contained therein. It’s a neat idea, and one that has clearly intrigued enough actors to allow its four-night run in Bristol Old Vic’s freezing studio. Tonight, Complicite’s Annabel Arden takes the stage.

Some interesting concepts are touched upon: the audience are numbered, we are required to co-operate with authority figures, we are pressured into making collective decisions. It’s unsubtle but reasonably effective stuff. Through a rather convoluted metaphor of white rabbits and the maverick red rabbit, we are invited to think about oppression, about freedom, about words and, rather a lot of the time, about rabbits.

What is fascinating is watching Arden work through the piece for the first time. She is a fantastic performer, adroit at both drawing us into the surreal narrative Soleimanpour weaves and buidling tension. Given that she is reading this script completely cold she does an impressive job, even when the script compels her to do an impression of a cheetah doing an ostrich dance.

There are moments where audience participation is used effectively to illustrate a point – such as at the very end of the play, the actor has to choose from and drink one of two glasses of water, one of which we are asked to believe has been poisoned. An audience member has to take over the reading of the last two or three pages of the script in order to facilitate this ending. Of course, we know that the poison isn’t real and that Arden is not going to keel over (one imagines that Bristol Old Vic would have probably called off the show before the fourth performance if they were killing off thespians every night…), but Soleimanpour’s discussions of suicide and Arden’s intense, intelligent delivery combine to sow a tiny bit of doubt. On the whole, though, I could have done without the audience participation. It feels unnecessary – we can understand that the rabbit being forced by the bears to cover his ears is analagous for codes of dress in Iran without two blokes from the front row being asked to play the roles of rabbit and bear.

Where White Rabbit, Red Rabbit falls down is in the language itself. The script is deeply repetitive for no good reason, the rabbit metaphor is overstretched and rather laboured, the narrative is confused. It is experimental in form and structure – necessarily, given the constraints it imposes on its performer – and this is not always successful.

There is a tendency to be indulgent towards plays that we feel are “worthy” in some way. This piece is a fascinating glimpse into the life of the writer, but it does not quite transcend that and become the deeply philosophical musing on freedom that it strives to be. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit has moments when it illuminates much more than the rabbits, but it never quite manages to overcome its own self-conscious voice and become a piece of theatre that can stand alone.

It’s worth seeing, not only to see what another actor does with the piece and how another audience reacts, but also because it does have powerful moments. It’s only 55 minutes, too, so if you’re curious about those rabbits, or about what life might be like for a dissident playwright in Iran, then do go. Just be sure to wrap up warm.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is in Bristol Old Vic’s studio until 19 January. For information, including who will be performing each night, and tickets, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk/rabbit.html