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Theatre review It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it

GORDON PARSONS relishes a play that reveals how language carries much more than simple communication

English
The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon

 

WITH language at the centre of current battles, not only with gender identity issues but also within our phoney culture wars, Iranian-American dramatist Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play arrives in Britain spot on cue.  

Set in an Iranian TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) classroom, a mixed group of four adult students engage with their linguistic struggles under the demands of their enthusiastic anglophile teacher who insists they communicate only in English.  

Their different reasons for learning the language range from Elham, who needs to pass in order to pursue a medical career in Australia, and Roya, from an older generation, equally desperate to communicate with her granddaughter who has emigrated with her son’s family, to Canada: “Why you give my granddaughter a name I cannot say?” Then there is the enthusiastic young Goli, who likes English because “no-one really listens to me in Farsi,” and the somewhat mysterious Omid, the one male.

There is plenty of scope for humour with the inevitable basic confusions in the language exercises that Margan, their teacher, sets for them. However, even the simple kitchen utensil terms in a pass-the-ball game reveal personality and rivalry tensions.

As each session develops the participants’ skills at different levels, the students’ changes between their native Farsi and newly acquired broken English reveal how language carries much more than simple communication. Feelings and emotions express themselves beyond the level of semantics.

Sanaz Toossi manages language changes by having the characters use unaccented English when speaking in Farsi and in varying levels of accents when speaking English. Only at the very end of the play when the course has changed much more in them than their linguistic skills do Elham (Serena Manteghi), who hates English as much as she needs it, and her teacher Margan (Nadia Albina), who has learned even more than her students about language and herself, speak in actual Farsi.

This moment is a master finale as the inevitably largely English-speaking audience are left listening to the music of a language they cannot understand. 

Although all except Margan and Omid (Nojan Khazai) see English as an escape from Iran, there is surprisingly no reference to the politically oppressive religious system in their home country in 2008 when the play is set. This apparently led to some audience members walking out in the US but, in fairness, this is a play about the significance of language, individually and socially, and therefore politically, it speaks most eloquently through its silence.

Runs until June 1, and at Kiln Theatre London until June 29. Box Office 01789 331 111 rsc.org.uk

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