Life & Culture

English review: I think this classroom drama could try a little bit harder


Mind your language: a scene from Sanaz Toossi's play English

Kiln Theatre | ★★★✩✩

There is a price to be paid when only expressing yourself in a second or third language. “No one has any idea that you were top of your class. Or that you’re adventurous or optimistic or that you’re kind,” says Marjan (Nadia Albina) a teacher of English in the Iranian city of Karaj.

This crisis of identity is at the core of this Pulitzer-winning play by Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi, first seen in the UK at the RSC’s Other Place.

Marjan’s four students are of varying ability, from Omid (Hadi Tabbal) who speaks English suspiciously well, to the competitive Elham (Serena Manteghi) who continually ignores Marjan’s golden rule of only speaking English in the classroom by breaking into Farsi whenever she gets resentful about her progress.

All four students are learning to take the TOEFL, the Test Of English as a Foreign Language exam.

The six-week course is used by Toossi to structure her play into as many scenes, during which we learn a little more about the aspirations of these students.

For 18-year-old Goli (Ava Lalezarzah) English is “like rice” from which you can make anything you want, unlike Farsi, which wants to be poetry. But everyone else struggles with the demands of learning not just a new language but absorbing a different culture.

This is especially true of 54-year-old grandmother Roya (Lanna Joffrey) whose family has moved to Canada and refuses to play along with Marjan’s lesson and play her chosen English song to the class. Instead she brings (particularly lovely) Iranian music, arguing that she and her fellow shouldn’t forget who they are. Similarly Elham hates the language she is learning to increase her employment prospects. Indeed, she has a repeating dream that the world is dominated by Farsi instead of English and it is seems that it is this legacy of colonialism that has driven Toossi to write her play.

This theme is handled with a light touch but it isn’t challenged in a way that might elevate the evening from being an affectionate study of the students’ motives to something more, well, dramatic. I couldn’t help thinking that if these attitudes were aired in an English classroom where a foreign language were being learned it would be seen as narrow-minded at best or bigoted at worst.

Still, Diyan Zora’s production and the cast elegantly negotiate the tricky job of representing two languages while only speaking one.

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