Philip Coulson is best known in Nairobi for being a prominent lawyer. But last Saturday night at Braeburn Theatre, he joined a long line of international “A-listed actors” to do a “cold read” of Nassim Soleimanpour’s audacious script, White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
The Iranian playwright’s highly innovative and interactive one-man show has been translated into no less than 20 languages (but never his mother tongue, Farsi) and staged in major cities all over the world. Yet the show has no director and no rehearsal time.
Nor does an actor have a chance to see the text until just before he reads it in front of a live audience. That is according to the playwright’s “rules”.
So when the show’s producer, Davina Leonard came on stage with Mr Coulson and handed him the sealed envelope with the script inside, the actor and the audience were united.
We were both being introduced to Soleimanpour’s unusual play at the same time. Yet it was exhilarating to see how well Coulson handled his theatrical task.
Juggling his “cold reading”, which involved him not only playing the actor and occasionally, the playwright’s voice, but also calling audience members on stage and giving them absurd assignments to enact (like being a white rabbit running from a bear!), Coulson kept his cool.
He quickly got into the author’s witty, wily spirit and did a brilliant job drawing his audience into this ingenious story line.
Gradually we could see that this quirky play had multiple layers of meaning, hidden in allegorical creatures who like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, symbolised issues grappled with by the author.
They had to do with tyranny and want of free speech, identity and alienation, and his own inability to leave his country due to red tape and the State rule that obtaining a passport required two years mandatory military service which the writer refused to do.
And so he chose to write about “Rabbits” as his way of getting word out that tyranny can be cruel. He even toys with the notion of suicide as a means of coping.
But rather than White Rabbit Red Rabbit painting a dark, dreary picture, Soleimanpour’s play entertains with the spontaneity of Mr Coulson and his delegated cast’s making fun of themselves.
The only truly stunning moment in the script comes towards the end when the writer suggests the actor has to actually gamble with life and death.
Two water glasses and a vial of poison on a table (with a chair and ladder) have been the only props on an otherwise bare stage. And as one audience member had early on been ordered to empty the poison into one of the two glasses, the text told Coulson to drink from either one.
A key indicator of how enthralled his audience was with the show last Saturday night was when one woman jumped up just before Coulson chose a glass. She impulsively grabbed both glasses and threw the water on the stage floor.
Her move was unscripted but it showed how captivating Coulson’s performance was combined with Soleimanpour’s mind game. In the end, the actor followed the script, picked one glass and finally fell down flat on the floor.
Was he “dead” or was it for the audience to decide? Ultimately, we can see why White Rabbit Red Rabbit has attracted so many great actors globally (and local ones too, including John Sibi Okumu, Mumbi Kaigwa, Aleya Kassam, Maimouna Jallow and Nick Reding, all of whom played the actor last July).
Thanks to Davina who brought the script to Kenya (courtesy of Aurora Nova) after seeing it staged in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three years ago.
Meanwhile, Davina will give her own one-woman show this Sunday at 5pm at the National Museum. She will re-stage Every Brilliant Thing which also has a wonderfully interactive component.
Right after her Sunday show, Mike Kudakwashe who has been described as the “funniest man in Harare” will do his stand-up comedy set also at National Museum.
Tomorrow night Davina co-stars with Kevin Hanssen, Omwoma Mbogo and Mike Kudakwashe in a slightly shortened version of Silvia Cassini’s A Man Like You at Louis Leakey Auditorium.
Finally, this Sunday afternoon in Nanyuki, Martin Kigondu’s Prevail Arts Company will perform his new play, What Happens in the Night at Le Rustique Restaurant from 3 p.m.
The following weekend Prevail will perform the same drama Saturday, October 7 at 5 p.m at Daystar University Valley Road.
Martin’s cast includes Chichi Sei, Nick Ndeda, Shiviske Shivisi, Mourad Sadat and Salim Gitao.