Right before his performance of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at the Brisbane Powerhouse in February, ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler tweeted:
Waiting backstage to perform the play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. I will be given the script when I walk onstage, alone. #anxietydream
The peculiar challenge facing Fidler – and any performer of Rabbit –involves an unadorned stage containing a ladder, a chair and a table laden with two glasses of water, a spoon and an envelope containing a script they have never seen but will nonetheless perform. All they might know is the playwright’s name, Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian writer who refused to do national service and was denied a passport. They’ve otherwise had no rehearsal, no director and received minimal instructions: don’t read the play beforehand.
The audience are none the wiser. Performers, including partners John Leary and Alison Bell, were listed on the bill, but who appeared from night to night was a tightly kept secret. Bell explained that being cast in a show they both couldn’t prepare for meant not discussing it until both had their turn. On opening night at the Malthouse, it was Catherine McClements. Non-actors, like radio host Sam Pang, were also part of the line-up. It doesn’t really matter who performs Rabbit, and yet it matters irreducibly. None of them have read the play, and it will unfold – and end – differently every time.
For an hour or so, performer and audience switch roles, taking turns keeping time, creating an archive of notes, contributing additional props and working together to perform Soleimanpour’s script. Together they encounter bears, ostriches and cheetahs and, of course, the titular white and red rabbits – the subjects of a violent experiment that is as revolting as it is fascinating. They also encounter the voice of the playwright. Ever-present in the room, Soleimanpour is earnest, manipulative and canny, but not sadistic. He wants this to work as much as the audience and the actor do.
For the unprepared performers, the situation could indeed be the professional nightmare: the cold performance of a script they’ve never seen and about which they know very little. But paradoxically, it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime role. You literally cannot perform this part twice.
It could all go terribly. I once asked three hundred bored first year students a spontaneous and ill-conceived question. In the morgue-silence that followed, I could almost smell the vapors of profound and unadulterated awkwardness settling around me like a fart so rancid and powerful its stench somehow managed to pervade an entire lecture theatre. That said, I am not a trained actor and first year students are not a theatre audience. But there is something primal and terrifying about these moments. Most of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid them.
Rabbit could be an equally nightmarish experience if the phrase ‘audience participation’ makes you squirm. It is appropriate – and no coincidence – that one sequence in the script describes a rabbit that visits a circus and, through a combination of forces of surveillance and evasion, ends up performing as an ostrich. The circus is, after all, a place where some of the most dreaded and humiliating scenes of audience participation often occur.
But Rabbit reminds us that there are different types of nightmares, and at least two different kinds of audience participation. The conventional kind involves an audience member (or members) prompted by a performer (or performers) to act in a particular way, in a manner deliberately contrived to create a pre-determined outcome. In other words, tightly choreographed audience participation. But this isn’t the kind offered here; Rabbit is more gentle, less predictable and more rewarding. In any case, how could this unprepared performer manipulate their audience-participants? Both know as little about the script as each other. The effect is a literal ceding of control to the audience, and a greater responsibility for and a deeper implicatedness in what unfolds.
Rabbit may fall into the category of it-may-not-even-be-theatre-at-all (as one pedantic troll on The Guardian comments section suggests), though I suspect few would care to spend too long debating that question.
The anxiety dream is also an apt metaphor beyond these meta theatrical questions. Soleimanpour was inspired to write Rabbit by a nightmare he had in which he committed suicide onstage in front of an audience that included his parents. He’s finally been able to discuss this outside of Iran: in 2012 he was granted a passport and surprised Brisbane audiences when, after taking the seat that Rabbit’s script instructs will always be left empty for him at every performance, he announced his presence.
Soleimanpour’s work is gracious and generous to both audience and performer. It is skillfully contrived to challenge, humiliate, and endear the actor performing it. It may also kill them, in a way that is figurative and meta-theatrical, but also potentially literal in a way that someone not wishing to divulge too many of Rabbit’s secrets should ever explain.
Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.