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Acclaimed performance has its Arabic premiere in Assiut with little success

After traveling the world when its writer could not, Nassim Soleimapour’s much-translated, critically-acclaimed “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” received its stage — and Arabic language — premiere on Saturday, as part of the second annual Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF).

Audience reaction was nearly unanimous: out of 86 attendees, there were 79 walkouts, with the remaining members consisting of D-CAF organizers and a few of the police officers assigned with escorting them. When later asked his opinion of the show, one of the officers replied with a dismissive laugh: “You call that a play? Why didn’t you bring us something good [from Cairo]?”

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” was performed in Assiut — or more specifically, on a small stage at the Ahmed Bahaa’ el-Din Cultural Center in Dowier, a tiny, dusty huddle of mud-brick homes that is an offshoot from the village of Sodfa, which in itself is about an hour’s drive from the capital of the governorate, Assiut City. It is a somewhat remote location, far removed from what are traditionally recognized as the country’s cultural hotspots, and because of such, might seem an unusual choice to premiere an Iranian play, let alone one as unique as Soleimanpour’s study on the nature of authority, which features no sets, no director, minimal props, much audience interaction, and a single stage actor who, according to the rules of the production, can only read the script for the first time as he performs it.

Egypt Independent talks to D-CAF Artistic Director Ahmed El Attar, festival coordinator Chloe Teevan, and the play’s sole performer Emad Ismail about experimenting with an experiment, and the disappointing results.

Egypt Independent: Who chose to include this play in D-CAF, and for it to be performed in Assiut?

Chloe Teevan: I know that Ahmed El Attar saw it when he was traveling and really wanted to bring it to Egypt and have it be translated. He was interested in having it performed outside of Cairo. (“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” was one of several acts taken to Assiut by D-CAF as part of a program that included a children’s book-making workshop and a posse of clowns.)

Ahmed El Attar: It is a remarkable piece of theater. I saw it during the London International Festival for Theater, and just thought it was an inventive, innovative play, with a very simple concept. It is brilliant.

EI: But why Assiut specifically?

Attar: I just thought it would be interesting to have it performed somewhere outside of Cairo, for an audience who maybe is not as used to these sorts of shows — I thought it would lead to a strong reaction. I knew the audience would be somewhat limited—we did not, for example, expect there to be any women because in a [village like this] they are simply not around outdoors.

EI: The audience consisted almost exclusively of children.

Attar: Yes, and that was not supposed to be the case. We had told [the cultural center employees] that this was a play for adults, and that they could also have some children attend. Again, I knew there would not be women, but I was not expecting that the audience would be children. It is not a children’s play and we had made that clear. There should have been at least some adults in the audience but, as you know, not everything works out as planned.

EI: The only adults I saw there were the D-CAF organizers, the cultural center employees, and the police escorts who were the only ones who made it to the end. One of them even threw his gun onstage — after taking out the bullets — to offer as a prop to the actor.

Attar: I did not know that. I hope he [the officer] enjoyed the play at least.

EI: He did not. I asked him afterwards.

Attar: Oh. That is too bad. But I do think an adult audience could have enjoyed it.

Based on the bulk of positive online reviews of the show’s previous productions held around the world (or Europe, mostly), this is a fair assumption for Attar to make. Yet Emad Ismail, the stage-television-voice actor and news correspondent burdened with conforming to the demands of Soleimapour’s heavily self-referential script for a live audience, feels like the choice of venue may have only been part of the problem.

Egypt Independent: How much did you know about the show before going onstage?

Emad Ismail: I did not know anything, really. [Ahmed El] Attar would not give me any information, other than telling me he saw it in London and really enjoyed it. I did a quick online search in Arabic, but that did not really help.

EI: Were you given anything to prepare with? Notes or instructions?

Ismail: The script is to be read for the first time during the performance, but it does come with instructions and a note that should be read by the performer 48 hours before going onstage. I only got those on the morning of the show. The note told me that there would be two glasses of water onstage that I was not allowed to drink from — I should bring my own water — and that the bold text in the script was to be emphasized during my performance, either through physical gestures or tone of voice. That was it.

EI: No director, no sets, no other actors — just you and an audience and a script you have never read. Going onstage, were you intimidated at all?

Ismail: Actually, I was not intimidated. I am used to improvising — I would have been fine if they just put me on stage and told me to improvise for a couple of hours. From the start this whole thing has felt like a challenge, so I was pretty excited about it.

EI: What was it like, performing it?

Ismail: I actually did not like the play at all — did not enjoy the text. It just felt to me like the writer was a bit too…selfish, or self-involved. There is a lot of him in it, at the expense of everything else. It was a bit of a dictatorship in that sense. I was very much engaged when it started, but as it went on, it felt increasingly like I was being controlled by someone who really does not like the actor, or is interested in the audience or anything but their own voice. It was very self-informed — it is all his perspective and all his voice and the focus is on nothing else. It is an interesting premise, but the writer did not take it any further than it being about him. It was also way too long for what it was.

EI: I was reading online that, now that Nassim Soleimanpour has a passport, he has been showing up at different performances around the world, and interrupting them to introduce himself to the audience.

Ismail: Yeah. That is a symptom of a problem, I would say. I would be pissed if he did that at my performance. What is the point, then?

I actually probably would not have stuck to the script because of how much I did not like it, if it were not for the note from the writer, which asked the performer to commit to the role no matter any interruptions, and to perform the script to the end. So I committed, but even that note felt strange. Like it was not so much an act of mutual trust as it was the writer intentionally putting you in a vulnerable position.

EI: Did you enjoy any aspect of the performance?

Ismail: Well, yes, the beginning, when I still was not sure what direction it would take. I enjoyed the interactive parts, but then those ended and it was obvious I was losing the audience. I tried to keep it engaging, but at times the script did not help. The idea of being confined to his own country and traveling through his script is a strong one, and could have been elaborated on more, but it was not. Then there’s the part where he talks about his uncle, and that just goes on forever. The point he makes is interesting, but lost in the middle of all that uncle talk and repetition. And the 17 ways to commit suicide. Seriously? That is a lot of ways to get into onstage.

EI: Did you feel like the setting helped at all — that this script and this venue and audience were a good combination?

Ismail: Oh, no, it did not help at all. It was not the right audience for this type of play, that should have been very clear from the start, and I am a bit surprised, really, as to why this specific play was chosen for this location. It is certainly not a children’s play, yet our audience was almost entirely children. And, you have to bear in mind, this is a tiny, tiny village and its residents do not get a lot of exposure to theater, so, to start off with experimental theater is already asking a lot. And, this was pretty experimental. Also, it started off interactive, and that had the kids interested, but that disappeared and it became this repetitive monologue and the kids lost all interest.

EI: Would you do it again in a different setting?

Ismail: I would have liked to perform this play in Cairo, where it would get a stronger reaction. But I would not do it again. It was an experience, and an interesting one, and I am sure I benefited from it. But, at the end of the day, I enjoy the process of theatrical work, I enjoy the collaboration, the sets and props, the sense of community, and you get none of that satisfaction working on something like this. Most importantly, the point of a play is to entertain the audience, and that definitely did not happen with this play.

Innovative, inventive theater, or whiny, self-idolizing drivel, Egypt Independent urges readers to decide for themselves. As part of D-CAF’s program in Cairo, "White Rabbit Red Rabbit"  will be repeated several times by different performers including Khaled Abou El Naga and Salwa Mohamed Ali. Soleimanpour will also be available to discuss the work with the audience twice this month.

For the complete schedule, dates and times, click here.

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