Wednesday 24 July 2013

Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Melbourne

The most exciting moment of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is also the most mundane. An actor walks onto the stage and picks up an envelope from a table, pulling out a copy of a script.

Why is this interesting? Because the actor has never seen the script before, and is about to perform its contents on stage in front of a paying audience.

We know this, she knows this, and the author - Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour - knows this. Tomorrow night there'll be a new actor taking on the role, and he or she will know this too.

It's theatre stripped to its absolute basics, a point clearly made in Soleimanpour's text.

Speaking in the text from 2010, when he didn't have access to a passport, the playwright points out how he is able to communicate with strangers located far away and in the future.

This something that's always been true of plays - indeed, of any writing - but in this curious setting it's a philosophical truth which packs a punch.

Sitting in our brightly lit seats, listening to the playwright speak to us through the assigned actor for the evening, we're suddenly in awe of both the gulf between us and the fact that we can collaborate through time and space.

But that's not all he has to say. Via the tale of a white rabbit who goes to the circus, and another story of a competitive experiment with a white rabbit marked red, we're given some hints about the dark side of human nature.

The red rabbit could be the person who stands out and is dragged down for that difference, be it via racism, tall poppy syndrome or the generalised resentment emanating from Internet “haters”.

It's a fascinating show to watch, partly because of the predicament of the actor. For once he or she can't retreat behind the mask of a character, and as a result there's a lot of sympathy from the audience for her efforts (the actor on the night I went was Catherine McClements).

Although the actor is good natured about her situation, there's something slightly undignified about the starkly revealed puppeteering of the playwright, the actor a victim of his whims.

The audience is also exposed and drawn into the performance as members take to the stage and act as instructed; no hiding behind the fourth wall for this crowd.

In fact, the Malthouse has wisely configured the Beckett Theatre so we can see each other quite clearly across the thrust stage.

It's a fascinating experience, an hour in which the carefully concealed artifice of theatre is removed, forcing us to grapple with its unadorned mechanics. And communicate with someone who plainly isn't there. As playwrights, of course, never are.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit continues (with a different actor each night) at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank to 3 August 2013. Book online.

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