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Nadia Albina leads a terrific cast in a nuanced examination of language's impact on identity in the RSC’s European premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. writes Tom Monahan.

Photography courtesy of Richard Davenport

“You can only speak one language” – Marjan (Nadia Albina), an English language teacher preparing a group of students to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, tells her class – “you can know two.” Sanaz Toossi’s carefully crafted script, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Playwriting in 2023, is set in a classroom in 2008 for adult students to practise and improve their English in Iran. The play initially invites us to ask a question it then proceeds to dismantle: is language a tool to express a desire or does it provide us a sense of identity? The European premiere of English, performed at the Kiln Theatre, seems to imply a third possibility, that for some, identity is the desire and the English language, with all its connotations for the Iranian students, serves as both an aid and a threat en route to achieving selfhood.

Much of English’s brilliance arises out of its main formal conceit. From the outset, the play concedes to an English-speaking audience: the actors differentiate English and Farsi by switching between English in a British and international accent. This effect, similarly used in Translations by Brian Friel, is practical – an English-speaking audience can understand the characters at all times – but it also serves a metaphorical purpose to highlight how the Iranian characters' identities are partially concealed even when fully understood.

During the intensive six-week programme, we learn the students' motives, the reason why Marjan is so committed to enforcing an English-only policy within the classroom, and the meaning language has on their relationship with the world. Their personalities change as they move between languages, compounding their reluctance or enthusiasm to learn English. The actors perform these shifts deftly; their gestural articulacy is as stilted as their verbal fluency when speaking in ‘English’. Omid, in an outstanding performance by Nojan Khazai, wears this tension to great effect in his mannerisms, which restrict and contrive as he performs situational scenes to the class in English. Another student named Roya (Lanna Joffrey) suggests this impeded fluency hides both her intention and her personality: she is comically incapable of speaking English but appears to speak more eloquently than all the others in Farsi.

To emphasise the deracination felt by the teacher and students and to question the limits of language’s potential to provide them a home, George Dennis’s sound design subtly indicates the blurred distinction between performance and reality by employing a soundtrack that resembles string instruments tuning at the start and end of the play, as though in preparation for a recital. We are mistaken in assuming a melody is to follow; we are waiting in anticipation of a performance that has already begun. Similarly, unknown to the characters but increasingly known to us, identity is continuously occurring. It isn’t a potential yet to actualise. 

Diyan Zora’s production for the RSC impressively mobilises all elements of theatre to build a layered understanding of the force of language’s ability to connect and distance the speakers from themselves and each other. For instance, humour shapes the audience’s relationship with the students. In the beginning, we laugh at the students when they make basic mistakes. This distancing effect moves to a type of humour based on identification in the middle section of the play, especially in a scene that involves the students taking a practice aural exam: their bafflement at the speed with which the actors on tape speak brings back traumatic memories for anyone who has had to sit similar exams in French or Spanish.

Photography courtesy of Richard Davenport

If the early sections transition from othering to identifying, the ending offers a final, emphatic statement. Until now, an English-speaking audience has been pandered to, spoken to by non-native speaking characters in our language. In the final moments, the actors begin speaking in Farsi and distance themselves from us at the moment when the characters reveal to each other what appears to be a profound truth. Their speech is laden with meaning – and beyond our understanding.

English runs at the Kiln Theatre from June 10th until July 6th.


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