Nassim Soleimanpour: ‘Refusing military service in Iran doesn’t make me a hero’
The Fringe First-winning playwright’s works have travelled the world while he was unable to leave his native country. Now he’s performing his latest play himself – with a little help from the audience, he tells Thom Dibdin
Sat outside an Edinburgh cafe in the sun, Nassim Soleimanpour is happily introducing a variety of cakes and sweet buns he has brought to the table.
The Iranian playwright, who has just turned performer for his latest work Nassim, is in his element – not only because there is food to be shared. He is also finding the drama in the situation, both conducting events and leaving elements to chance.
This is exactly the way his international breakthrough play White Rabbit Red Rabbit works. It is an experiment in form, designed for a different actor to read the script cold at every performance. There is no rehearsal and no director.
As its writer, he is completely in control – the words are to be read, the directions to be acted on – while leaving everything about the performance to chance.
The play touched a nerve with audiences when it premiered at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, but Soleimanpour was unable to see the response in person. As a conscientious objector to military service, he was unable to get a passport to travel outside Iran. So he sent the play out into the world in his stead.
Born into a cultured Iranian family, Soleimanpour’s father was a novelist – “he was like a mentor” – and his mother a painter. Both were bookworms. He was brought up in Shiraz, capital of Iran’s Fars province, and if he hasn’t exactly been a writer all his life, he has always been thinking about how he could write his thoughts down.
Soleimanpour started writing plays at 18, when he moved north to Isfahan to study engineering and telecommunication for four years at university. But before he finished the course, he quit and moved further north to Tehran to study theatre. He spent his first two years on general performing arts before specialising in set design. While this was a practical decision – he could take what he had learned in the degree to earn a living working in architecture – Soleimanpour is keen to add that writing is in his nature and he soon got back to it.
‘I thought: ‘What if the audience could come to rehearsals? We’d have tea and make mistakes and question everything’
In Tehran, he met the Canadian actor and director Daniel Brooks. Their friendship grew over the three weeks Soleimanpour acted as his interpreter.
“He shaped my whole life and changed my vision,” says Soleimanpour. Their friendship grew as they watched shows together. “I started to realise, ‘Oh God, this guy is really smart.’ Then I read about his project The Noam Chomsky Lectures, which was a huge shock to me: ‘Oh, so you can do theatre like that.’
“He was the guy who convinced me to write Rabbit. I had a draft, and he said, ‘I really like it, why don’t you write it?’ Two years later, he came back to Tehran and asked: ‘What happened to your play?’ I was struggling with it and he told me to finish it and send it to him.”
The play, which took six years to write, started with a nightmare. During a nap on a hot summer in Shiraz, the 22-year-old Soleimanpour dreamed that he was on stage with a glass of water in front of an audience consisting of his mother, father, brother and closest friends.
“It was a very cosy show,” he says. “I was telling them: ‘This is it. Today I am going to commit suicide, I have some poison here.’ I was explaining that I would play some music and change the lights. I remember telling my mum [in the dream]: ‘You know I am crazy, I will do that.’ I just woke up and I was not at all suicidal.”
Sitting in an Edinburgh cafe, he continues: “I am full of life, but I started thinking of the concept of suicide. It is a machine against its purpose because our purpose is to live.”
Q&A: Nassim Soleimanpour
What was your first
With an architect. As much as movies show that we are starving in Iran, that is not the case. We are sitting on oil. In Iran, parents mainly help you. They pay for you to study. When I was 26 I was the head of the rendering department of an architectural company, doing 3D and 2D images and digital painting.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I ran festivals. By the time I was 24, I was the international deputy of the Iran International Festival of University Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Honesty is very important for an artist. If you want to be honest or not, we are all grey, we are not red rabbits or white rabbits. I wish I had known that even if you lie to other people, be honest with yourself. This is why I don’t like Blind Hamlet – there is a lie at the core of the whole game. I wish people had told me: “Don’t do it for the sake of applause.” It is very good when people like what you do, but you can’t convince everyone to like what you do – then you will be in pain.
Who or what is your
Daniel Brooks, a very smart guy who doesn’t care about the market. He is the one person who, if he is doing a new project, I have to go and see it. And my dog. We adopted him when he was 50 days old. This is how you see how a machine starts to feed itself with information and grow and change and become more complex.
What’s your best advice
Don’t go to them. I have experienced it once and I hated it. I hate this power. It is really sad when you see a very good actress in her 50s struggling to prove something. I think we could come up with better structures.
If you hadn’t been a playwright what would you have been?
I am very sad I quit playing the piano. Music is better than words. Words are very boring.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I just give everyone a smile before and after the show – even if it is a bad show.
At a similar time, during rehearsals at university, he would make mistakes during cold readings but laugh them off. He had the idea that instead of selling tickets for the show, which had become stale after months of performances, they should share the spontaneity of the early performances with audiences.
“What if they could come to rehearsals? We’d have tea and make mistakes and question everything,” Soleimanpour says. “We decided that was what we should share, this was how we should sell tickets.”
In the meantime, the passport problem emerged, but it was not the anti-Iran narrative that some in the West were pushing.
“I never did anything heroic,” he says. “I was not under house arrest, I didn’t do anything illegal. At 18, you have to pass your military service, which often takes you two years, and many people refuse it. You don’t get arrested, there is no risk, but you don’t get your passport and you can’t purchase land. That is it. Many people do it.”
Then Soleimanpour’s wife persuaded him to go for a medical check-up. He discovered that he had become half-blind in one eye and was exempt from military service.
The combination of the three elements – a contemplation of the nature of suicide, performing a cold reading complete with mistakes, and Soleimanpour’s lack of a passport – combined to create the script that has become his calling card. And it is one that still intrigues him.
“The beauty for me is the struggle between the two characters in the play, between the performer and the script,” he says. “Whether one wins and one loses or they become friends and they win together. This is what I really enjoy.”
It is a concept he has brought into his subsequent productions such as Blind Hamlet, developed with the Actors Touring Company. In it, a Dictaphone played a recording of Soleimanpour as the only actor on stage. It was not as much of a success – perhaps, he says, because part of it is based on a lie (he is said to die halfway through the narrative). Now he actively argues against its performance.
Blank, created with the Bush Theatre, is the play he stoutly defends. While Rabbit has one actor reading the script, in Blank the actor doing the cold reading has to pick another random person from the audience to join them on stage.
The audience then has to choose the characters – including a playwright – and a narrative. While it sounds simple, Soleimanpour is adamant that constructing the script was complex – so much so that he has had to include written instructions for those translating it.
In Nassim, the Fringe First winner at Edinburgh this year, Soleimanpour trades on his own absence during the early part of his international career while appearing in the play. He’s there in person while the actor cold-reading the script appears on screen and interacts with him. Crucially, however, Soleimanpour is silent throughout, as the play focuses on him translating the show into Farsi, then phoning his mother in Iran.
This means that Soleimanpour can appear in any performance in any language. Indeed, he has plans to tour it around the world, learning basic sentences in new languages along the way.
The scripts that first went out into the world in his stead are now taking him off into the world with them. No doubt he will be introducing cakes at tables around the globe for several years to come – but always with an eye to how the drama of the piece can be found.
CV: Nassim Soleimanpour
Born: Shiraz, Iran, 1981
Training: University of Tehran
Landmark productions: White Rabbit Red Rabbit (2011); Blind Hamlet (2014); Blank (2016); Nassim (2017)
Awards: The Arches Brick Award, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2011), SummerWorks Outstanding New Performance Text Award (2011) and Dublin Fringe Festival Best New Performance (2012) for White Rabbit Red Rabbit; Fringe First at Edinburgh for Nassim (2017)
Agent: Aurora Nova, Berlin