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Interview: Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour

IMAGINE a play with no director or designer and just one character.

Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour who has written White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour who has written White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

IMAGINE a play with no director or designer and just one character. Imagine that character is played by someone different each night whose script is handed over moments before stepping on stage.

Sounds ambitious?

Well, this will be the challenge facing stars including Stephen Tompkinson, Kevin Whately and Sarah Millican when White Rabbit, Red Rabbit comes to Live Theatre in Newcastle.

The one-man show, described by Live’s literary manager Gez Casey as an engaging and powerful allegory, was dreamed up by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour. Literally.

It has its roots in a nightmare, explains the 30-year-old who monitors the globe-trotting progress of his fast-moving play from home in Iran.

“Six to seven years ago I had this nightmare in which I committed suicide in front of audience members including my parents,” he says.

The idea stayed with him so he decided to turn it into a play which is proving a huge success around the world.

Intrigued audience members are signing up without knowing anything much about it and then, after they’ve seen it, being asked to keep its details secret.

Since its premiere in 2011, with simultaneous performances in Canada and on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it has been catching people’s attention everywhere.

Unfortunately for Nassim, he hasn’t been present to receive the applause.

He says the reason he didn’t have a passport for some time was because he didn’t do the two years’ military service expected of young men in Iran.

“As soon as you are 18, if you go to university you can postpone the whole process,” he explains.

But if young people then balk at military service, they have to forget about passports.

So has he travelled anywhere?

“Before I was 18, I went to Dubai on my mother’s passport,” he says.

Now his situation has changed. An eye disorder has ruled him out of military service and a passport has been duly acquired.

Upbeat and genial, Nassim appears to be thoroughly enjoying the success of his play, which he wrote in English to maintain greater control over his work.

He explains his rationale - – that since new plays in Iran have to go before a committee, a work in a foreign language is more likely to escape the censor’s pen.

Nassim says he would love to travel to see his play performed but now faces visa problems. Hopes of visiting Holland were thwarted, but he’s hoping for better luck when White Rabbit, Red Rabbit opens in Australia. Perhaps he’ll get to England too.

“I was refused two times by the Dutch embassy,” he says. “They are worried that if I go to Australia or Holland or different cities I will not come back to Iran – but I have my wife here and my life here.”

He is hugely buoyed up by emails he’s received from those who have seen his work, which has almost taken on a life of its own.

It’s strange, he admits, having it travel without him but “I really like to have my show all around the world”.

“Since audience members have my email address, I have been receiving the most beautiful emails. That’s really heartening to someone like me.

“I remember once being in the middle of some emails with producers and audience members. Everybody is connected in this way.”

As part of Live Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebrations, it is inviting back old friends – actors, writers and comedians – to perform White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

Also appearing will be comedian Patrick Monahan and actors Chris Connel, Charlie Hardwick, John Hodgkinson, Shaun Prendergast, Laura Norton, Donald McBride, Nitin Kundra, Amy McAllister and Hywel Morgan.

On other nights you might see poet and performer Degna Stone, writers Shelagh Stephenson, Stella Duffy and Tracy Whitwell and writer and theatre-maker Daniel Bye.

Each will receive the script (a different one for men and women) just before taking to the stage.

Since coming up with his intriguing and original concept, Nassim, whose grandfather is a writer and poet, has been writing more plays and taking his ideas further.

And for his next plan? “A set with no actors. The audience members perform the show for themselves!”

:: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, in association with Aurora Nova Productions, Live Theatre, Newcastle, February 21 to March 17. Visit www.live.org.uk or call 0191 261 2694.

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