Interview: Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpor on his worldwide hit

Nassim Soleimanpor discusses his worldwide hit, debut play - and how he plans to follow it up.

Nassim Soleimanpour about his new show at Summerhall.
Nassim Soleimanpour about his new show at Summerhall.

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour learned his trade in a school of hard knocks. His father Ali is the respected author of five novels, hailing from the Iranian city of Shiraz, a city of letters where visitors pay homage at the home of medieval Persian poet Hafez.

At the age of 18, the future author of the hit play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit tried out a very short story on some of his father’s writer friends. “For two hours, I had to bear with these mature novelists, who were actually killing me, ‘That’s not right, you could do that and do this’.”

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He walked out of the room and right into a column in the family hall, banging his face, vividly remembered to this day. “For 16 or 17 years I was passing that column. That day it was too much pressure on my small shoulders, that I didn’t see it. That was my childhood.”

Living up to a famous father is one thing, living up to your own success is another. In 2011, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by the then unknown Soleimanpour, opened simultaneously on the Edinburgh Fringe and at the SummerWorks Performance Festival in Toronto.

His first serious play, and his first in English, from an idea honed over seven years, it was performed every night by a different performer, male or female, who was given the script cold, working to directions only from the pages they read out. The play – reviewers are still asked to say as little about it as possible – dramatically tests how society and state sit in judgment, in a work of great simplicity and original power.

There was an empty chair every night for its absent author, unable to leave Iran to see it, and more to the point it proved a rolling hit with audiences and actors lining up to appear, from Kevin Spacey to Juliet Stevenson. It has been performed around the world in 20 languages,
by comedian Sarah Millican in Newcastle and actor Nathan Lane in New York. This summer it is back for its fifth year in Edinburgh – and with it, Soleimanpour’s new work, Blank.

His first outing after Rabbit – which continues its global success, produced by Aurora Nova – was Blind Hamlet. In this second experimental piece, the only actor this time was a recording of Soleimanpour’s voice, engaging several members of the audience in what seemed to become a theatrical game. Reviews, however, were decidedly mixed.

Again, with Blank, Soleimanpour is asking critics to reveal as little as possible of the work’s content. This time, however, it draws more directly from White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’s inspiration. A performer will again be recruited to helm the play, blind, with producers hoping Rabbit veterans will make a return appearance.

But Soleimanpour has framed the play, it’s fair to say, around other people’s lives, inspired by the emails that Rabbit invited its audience to send him in the nightly performance, reading out his address. In Rabbit, he shared the writer’s story through the voice of an actor; this time he wants to “help people to share their stories with themselves – not my story.” It is the audience who fill in the blanks, in what he hopes will be another “touring machine”.

When Rabbit was first staged in Edinburgh, Soleimanpour was 27, living in a single windowless room, after giving up the apartment his novelist father had rented for him. He’d worked in set design and programming rather than making a big name as a writer.

“You know Tehran can be really hot, 45 degrees, and I did not have a good signal on my phone,” he said. “I was barely breathing in my room, and I started to receive emails from people in Canada and Edinburgh, very kind emails, long emails, and I was reading them and crying, and reading them and crying. That comes from the good memories.” He would track his play’s progress around the world by the emails he received and answered.

Conscripted into the army, he was unable to travel, until a medical discovered a problem with his eye –an inspiration for Blind Hamlet.

He first saw Rabbit in 2013, and it has still not been 
produced in Iran. But he moved recently with his wife to Berlin, and is working on Nassim, which will open in London, and in which he will actually appear on stage.

Shiraz is famed for its gardens as well as its eponymous wine – or at least it was before the Iranian revolution. In the 20th century, it produced the country’s first major woman novelist and the award-winning writer and critic Shahriar Mandanipour.

Nassim grew up there immersed in writers obsessed with dark themes of death and suicide, but also ways of telling and retelling the same story, both evident in his own work.

He met Mandanipour recently in New York, and was reminded how “you have to spend months and years to build your story… to me writing is the permanent job of deleting, and rewriting, and being patient to make things better and better.”

Blank has already been performed in Holland; it is already in production in India, in Sweden, Denmark, and Argentina. Soleimanpour does not plan to be in Edinburgh for the 
opening, and says he is now more focused on the London work.

Rabbit’s 40 pages, the simple clarity of the narrative and its instructions, make it a pleasure to read. On a first reading of Blank, the experimental approach seems more cluttered and complex, though with both plays Soleimanpour went through a series of audience workshops, and the test will be in the performance.

“Rabbit was a life-changer. After Rabbit, this feeling of ‘Can I write a better play?’ that is something that is always around. If I don’t want to think about it, people still question it.”

In his mid-thirties, he’s a more mature writer, shaped by some 50 viewings of Rabbit itself. Where Rabbit was bright red and white, he says, Blank deals in shades of grey, and there are sections where it becomes quite free-flowing; the length is listed at 60-90 minutes.

“With Blank, how I wrote it, it might look easy, but it’s very hard to do. You have to consider it’s going to be translated into different languages, with gender, with pronouns … Technically it was very hard to write.

“There are similarities across the work,” he says. “I hope that I don’t repeat what I do, but at the end of the day they all come out of one mind. I personally like writing, I love writing, but in the meantime I hate it. It’s not an easy thing. That’s a funny discussion between me and my Dad. I always tell him that if I sit and write what I love, I’m not sure people would like it.”

● Blank is at Summerhall until 28 August; today 6:30pm. White Rabbit Red Rabbit, is at Assembly George Square Studios until 28 August