Edinburgh Feature: The Plays of Nassim Soleimanpour

What is it? Where is it?

White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Assembly George Square Studios | Five @ 14.50

Blind Hamlet, Assembly Roxy, Upstairs @ 14.40

Should I go?

Do you like fun?

What did you think?

Nassim Soleimanpour, from Shiraz, Iran, wrote a play called White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in 2010. I saw it last week, produced by the Actors Touring Company as part of a Nassim double-bill at Assembly Festival and, well, I wish that I could review it. Soleimanpour is the most interesting discovery of my Fringe so far.

Anything I would say about Rabbit would spoil the whole thing. What is it? It’s a game, a weapon and probably a trap. It is an autobiography set in an Orwellian Animal Circus or some place in Iran. It is the potentially fatal experiment of a crazy professor, trying to create a spontaneous textual event. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is performed by a new actor, reading ‘blind’ (what theatre people call the first time) in every performance.

Instructions provided to the script’s victims in the 48 hours prior to the performance stipulate two things: 1) that the actor should not know the play, nor should they attempt to find out anything about the play, and 2) they should prepare a consummate ostrich impression. It was first produced by Volcano Theatre for Summerworks and Edinburgh Fringe 2011. It is an unconventional little ditty.

That goes for both the ATC plays produced at Fringe ’14. Their form vacillates between the ostensibly post-dramatic and the autobiographical. The idea for a post-dramatic theatre was developed by Hans Thies-Lehmann in his book of the same name. It describes the aesthetic tendencies of the emerging avant-garde in the 1960s; to subvert the text of the drama for the benefit of the spectator. With your student stroodle on you might say that a theme, and my apologies Nassim, that a theme might be ‘young Iranian life’. His plays mimic the postmodern play, minus the acerbic attitude to prose that they often take.

Unlike so many painfully academic or politically apathetic postmodern works of art, the plays of Nassim Soleimanpour are humble rebellions. He is concerned for his countrymen and the severe conditions they live in. Nassim comes back to the fact that Iranian men must serve two years of military service before they can earn the right to a passport. As a spontaneous textual event White Rabbit, Red Rabbit achieved what the playwright could not, when it travelled across the world. The play has been translated into fifteen languages. Nassim has since been granted the right to travel, his visual impairment exempt him from military service. The threat of blindness found its way into his new Blind Hamlet. I hope that somehow, somehow I can offer an insight into this one. Pun intended.

If I’m honest I came expecting a gimmick, or some disastrous interactive Shakespeare experience. In some ways I came to see Hamlet specifically, and that’s a very specific mood for me, I don’t know about you. Maybe I thought that I would be asked to play The Dane myself (what theatre people call the play’s eponymous anti-hero)? Not at all. Blind Hamlet is original writing. It’s the story of a fictional playwright – I’m onto you Nassim – reading Hamlet, remembering his Dad reading Hamlet, and going blind. I hope my synopsis is tactful, I don’t to give anything away after all.

The story of Blind Hamley is performed by the playwright, a voice from a mic’ed up Dictaphone. He is the disembodied narrator who acts from the past, describing the present. The narrative follows this middle aged playwright into blindness as he struggles to finish reading Hamlet, as his father did before him. As the Dictaphone dials into life, a cracking old voice reads loud, speaking Arabic – the voice of Nassim’s father. Like Old Hamlet, he is a portentous voice from the past, (I am thy father’s spirit Hamlet, etc. etc,…) beckoning us into the world of the play. With the help of a charming Stage Manager named Jake, Nassim narrates to and plays games with us, the audience, who are down the rabbit hole – the white rabbit hole. It becomes clear that he wants to enact his descent into blindness through us, as the doctor’s visits slowly turn to the blue-red-blackness of sightless life.

We imagine that as Hamlet feigns or does indeed descend into madness he too goes blind. Losing sight of his principles, losing faith and failing virtue, the play Hamlet ends in a family massacre. I get the sense that Soleimanpour is less concerned with designing a complex metaphor than he is determined to show the games that humans play psychologically and politically, and to warn us of the grave dangers of a clouded judgement and a sightless mind, and games, massacres.

A famous paper by Frenchman Jean Francois Lyotard explained how language games would be used in the struggle against the homogeny of information systems. What does that mean? As a Marxist academic writing in the 1970s he described a trend in society which commoditized information and devalued education. He predicted the lives of the Bloody Generation Y before we were even a gleam in the sky (children are stars before they are born, obviously). I think Nassim is playing a language game. By that I mean that he has used a play (a language game) to question the authority of information systems in society. In Rabbits he forces us to enact the paradoxical cycle of prejudice. In Blind Hamlet he shows us the nonsensical linguistic root of prejudice and how it is institutionalised. How is this new? It is not a new rebellion, but an innovation on the apparatus of ‘theatrical rebellion’, if that even exists.

The post-dramatic has been the calling card of the avant-garde since the nineteen-sixties, and it’s getting tired. It’s very popular to reproduce the canon in the style, often as unimaginative and superfluous shadows. At the risk of lit-student stroodle, I suggest that Soleimanpour’s plays are post-theatrical. They are packed full of conflict and dramatic tension, but do away with the trappings of the theatre.

These dramas do not require rehearsal, they do not require directors, and they do not need actors (but respect their talents nonetheless). They require little design, and I imagine that they require less capital investment then the latest gangland Romeo & Juliet. While they do away with some traditional elements of the process, they reassess the role of the playwright as an active auteur in and of the work. The post-theatrical play offers the contemporary avant-garde new opportunites where increasingly it is plagued by the often arbitrary superlatives, ‘immersive’, ‘site-specific’, ‘physical theatre’. If you’re interested in the my idea for a post-theatrical theatre, check out Tim Crouch.

In Soleimanpour, as in Shakespeare, human life is a bad act with a little time to kill on stage (I’m paraphrasing Macbeth). The clean, bare necessity of this post-theatrical aesthetic validates the ostensibly autobiographical narratives where they might not otherwise be taken at face value. In White Rabbit, Red Rabbit the challenge to be true to the play makes the play potent and proves that author may not in fact be dead, as in Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. At the risk of navel-gazing, shoe-gazing, or star-gazing, Mister Barthes claimed that the authority of the reader takes precedent over that of the author, in this case the playwright. In Blind Hamlet Nassim bluffs the system, and challenges truth with a play that proves that while he may be alive, the author is a liar. The content of the play contradicts the truth values established by the aesthetic of the verbatim play when it makes some false claims. That’s what makes it interesting. “Why do I care?” says you. I just want Nassim to know someone is paying attention. See the show, decide for yourself.

Blind Hamlet reminds us that a lie is often more powerful than the truth and, with a flourish, challenges us to see the wolves for the sheep in a game, just like life, that asks us to kill in the dark.

How many of the stars?

4/5

Who are you?

I’m Colm.

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