White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, a young Iranian playwright, is a curious kind of play. It might be the most low maintenance play ever devised because it requires nothing from a theatre but a space, an envelope for the script, a bottle of water, two glasses and, finally, an actor.
On the Sunday I saw the performance, comedian Mark Watson stood nervously on a set that resembled a Cairo prison cell, designed for Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play of the Egyptian revolution, The Prophet, which would occupy the theatre for the rest of the week. The Gate’s artistic director Chris Haydon handed Watson the envelope which he opened and began reading aloud. In this way, we and Watson discovered the story together.
There is only one other required element: there must be an empty seat on the front row of the auditorium – a space for Soleimanpour who is unable to leave Iran. Soleimanpour refused to join the army for his mandatory national service and has been forbidden from receiving a passport. The empty seat happened to be next to me and I had placed my bag on it. When Watson reached the part that explained why there was a reserved sign next to me, I hurriedly moved my bag, just in case some miracle allowed Soleimanpour to smuggle himself out of Iran and into the theatre.
It seemed just about possible. After all, Iranians have a genius for improvisation. The director Jafar Panahi managed to show an improvised documentary entitled This Is Not A Film at Cannes this May by storing the footage on a flash stick, baking it in a cake and mailing it to the judges. Panahi did this despite being under house arrest in Tehran, awaiting a verdict by the appeals court on whether he will ever be allowed to make films again. The new non-film depicts a day in his life. Panahi is filmed mooching around his apartment on cameras that his friend, documentary-maker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, has conveniently left running. Over seventy-five minutes, Panahi plays old footage of past films, talks about aborted plans and sinks into a chair too bored to stop his daughter’s sharp-clawed iguana from crawling over his chest. Watching him, the audience understands the weight of a life that might be over, while also enjoying the sly performances of a man who has at least squeezed one last film out from under the gaze of the censors.
Iranians seem capable of building war planes and enriching uranium with nothing more sophisticated than auto shop technology. It is wonderfully uplifting to see this same genius used to circumvent the government’s endless restrictions on freedom. But I wonder how low maintenance are these Iranians, really? There is a line in the film, When Harry Met Sally, when Harry identifies Sally’s problem: she is, he says, “high maintenance but you think you're low maintenance”. It strikes me that both Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit and Panahi’s This is not a Film only seem to be low maintenance. They actually get under your skin and turn out to be high maintenance after all.