England, Kiln Theatre, 2024
Photo: Richard Davenport
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Kiln Theatre, Kilburn
  • Recommended

Review

English

4 out of 5 stars

Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer winner is a bittersweet, multilayered drama about a quartet of Iranians struggling to learn English

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Time Out says

As an aspirant bilingual person myself I loved Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer-winning play about a quartet of Iranian students learning English as a foreign language, each of them for very specific personal reasons. It’s a multilayered piece of writing. But at its heart the play is about the experience of translating yourself into a second language, and the frustration of not feeling like the same person as in your mother tongue.

Somewhere in provincial Iran, Marjan (Nadia Albina) is teaching a class to a group of four adults: Elham (Serena Manteghi), a biologist who needs an English diploma to work abroad; Goli (Sara Hazemi), who is young and seems to be learning English out of curiosity; Omid (Nojan Khazi), who appears to be a total natural and is applying for a US Green Card; and Roya (Lanna Joffrey), who is under the impression that she will be moving to Canada to go and live with her son and his family. Then there’s Majan herself: insistent on her class speaking English at all times, she lived in Manchester for nine years and it doesn’t seem immediately apparent why she returned - she has a slightly ghostlike quality, like she’s not meant to be here.

I wonder how this played out in the original US production, but here the characters adopt posh English accents when speaking in their native Farsi, but in halting accented English when speaking English (which is most of the play). These latter sections are necessarily tweaked for clarity, but Toossi is on the whole excellent at portraying the eccentric rhythms and slightly frenzied quality of people clutching at words they semi-understand in order to fulfil the requirements of a language class. 

She’s really excellent at the duality of self that can occur when learning a foreign language with totally different rules and grammar: young and polite, Goli’s English self isn’t hugely different to her Iranian one; older, opinionated and with a furious wit, Elham’s personality is totally neutered by English and she resents it tremendously. It’s a particularly excellent performance from Manteghi, portraying a frustrated and brilliant woman who almost has to pretend to be somebody else.

It is also a play about English speaking as a form of privilege. Most of these people yearn for something in this world that requires them to speak English to a high standard, for essentially administrative or legal reasons. Elham is clearly enormously clever, but has failed her English diploma five times. Omid is just some affable dude with no great ambition, but he just appears to be really good at languages.

Receiving its UK premiere in Diyan Zora’s no-frills-but-effective RSC co-production, ‘English’ is an elegant and aching play about dual selves and the cultural stranglehold of English. And if you’ve taken language lessons as an adult it is amusingly perceptive about them, especially the way that (mild spoilers) people have a tendency to drop out of them as the weeks roll by.

The production got mixed reviews when it premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon last month and I do strongly suspect that it’ll mean vastly more to you if you’ve ever made a concerted effort to learn a second language than if you haven’t. But I found it beautiful, an elegantly existential rationalisation of the soul searching that comes with trying to translate yourself into a new form.

Details

Address
Kiln Theatre
269 Kilburn High Rd
London
NW6 7JR
Transport:
Tube: Kilburn
Price:
£15-£40. Runs 1hr 30min

Dates and times

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