Breaking the theatre paradigm

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“CITYNEWS” recently published an edited version of Helen Musa’s half-hour interview by phone to Berlin with Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, whose play “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” opens at The Street Theatre tomorrow. Here is the full interview.

IF you wanted to revolutionise the theatre, how would you start? Throw out the director – that’s obvious – they have far too much power.

Nassim Soleimanpour
Nassim Soleimanpour

And go for the designer and the lighting people – they’re too dominant as well. Getting rid of the actors is more problematical, you need them to communicate with your audience.

Or do you? I’m talking to Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour by phone to Berlin, where he’s attending the Theatertreffen theatre festival.

Soleimanpour’s now-famous play “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” will get an airing at The Street Theatre soon and it’s bound to raise questions. Notable actors like Raoul Craemer and Geraldine Turner will appear in the play, but here’s the rub – none of them will have seen the script until they get on the stage itself. And audiences are told to keep their phones turned on. Last week at The Street Theatre we ran into Turner, who was feeling just touch nervous – and that’s pretty unusual – about being one of the actors in “Rabbit.”

Trained in European theatre and specifically trained in set design in Iran, Soleimanpour can talk about “Hamlet” or the Theatre of the Absurd as lucidly as anybody, in impeccable (he says “passable”) English, but absurdism is not what he’s on about it all.

“When the theatre phenomenon started thousands of years ago,” Soleimanpour says, “just one school emerged – the Greek school… But now we are talking about satellites and Internet and cell phones…I am trying to create a shortcut to the new media.”

Nobody, far less the playwright himself, is about to tell us what actually happens in the play, created while he was waiting for his passport to come through (as it did in late 2012) and figuring out how to play a part on the world stage without actually being there. The rest is history, with outings first in New York, then at the Edinburgh Festival and later on the West End, in Southeast Asia – everywhere in fact.

“It has now been translated into 20 languages but never performed in Iran…that proves we are talking about a social phenomenon, not something local,” he tells me. “It deals with author and audience, that’s it in a nutshell, I don’t talk about politics, I talk about structure.”

People often him what is the story of “Rabbit”? “There isn’t any linear story,” he says, “so I simply explain the situation which I wrote the play…I studied drama. I was exhausted with working in the theatre because I worked too much, I was running to festivals, I was teaching at university, I was 29 and I was getting married, then I thought, maybe I can write in English and work more internationally.”

Apparently hamstrung while waiting to get a passport, Soleimanpour nevertheless wanted to perform on the world stage. “How could I do it?” He asked himself, “What if I use a headset so the acting and the directing comes from me?… Could the theatre, he asked, just be an audience and the playwright wearing a pair of headphones?” That was his starting point, and the best part is that, as he says, “it was such fun.”

We note that some London reviewers refer to the play as ‘absurdist,’ but Soleimanpour is quite clear about that – “I would rather not be labelled in a category as much as possible. It is dangerous when you are labelled and defined, it’s so hard to move.”

Besides, even though people started to break from the classical theatre paradigms in the late 19th and early 20th century and the absurd was a part of this movement, to his mind, we’ve moved on. “Now we are talking about satellites and Internet and cell phones and dialogue with new media, we have games on phones, satellites and on TV. These media are totally affecting theatre.”

But the theatre can be strangely conservative and when we get to read theatre texts, “most of them are not being affected by new media at all – I am trying to create a shortcut to the new media. I push the text itself close to ‘becoming’ again, I use the start of the algorithm and give the audience the opportunity to shift the text.”

While in Berlin he’s been participating in an after-show discussion that focuses on politics in theatre. But I note that Soleimanpour has given his imprimatur to a peculiar press release urging media not to emphasise the political content in the play. “Yes, we wrote that any direct interpretation of the play to emphasise politics in Iran is not right and not my situation,” he says.

To him, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” has nothing to do with politics. In his view, Westerners, and particularly the media, when talking about politics, in Iran are “a bit naive.” Western journalists are always saying that back in Iran he was under house arrest – “I’m not house-arrested, I’m totally free,” he tells “Citynews.” “It is true that for a time I wasn’t allowed to leave Iran, but then I got my passport…my first time out of the country was in February 2013. I come and go now – that’s how I live. I’m spending half my life living in airports.”

In his play, he says, he is looking at the bare bones of theatre, asking, what the essence of theatre is, and (like the Canberra company, Boho Theatre) using game theory rather than conventional western dramaturgy.

“We cast different actors each time and we hand them the text…they open the envelope and they start reading the text…in that way we can shift the whole paradigm of theatre.”

And what next? I ask ““since it’s announced I can talk about it,” he says. “I am busy working at a piece called ‘Blind Hamlet,’ which premieres on June 27 in London, produced by the Actors Touring Company…it’s partly inspired by the Russian ‘Mafia/Werewolf’ game, in which one person kills the guy, but no one knows who is the killer. I’m applying that to Hamlet…it’s a group role-playing game of strategy, survival, and the ability to spot a fraud.

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit”, at The Street Theatre, May 28-31 and June 1, bookings to and 6247 1223.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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