Sanaz Toossi
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon

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Sara Hamezi (Goli), Nojan Khazai (Omid), Nadia Albina (Marjan) and Lanna Joffrey (Roya) Credit: Richard Davenport © RSC
Sara Hazemi (Goli) and Serena Manteghi (Elham) Credit: Richard Davenport © RSC
Serena Manteghi (Elham), Nadia Albina (Marjan) and Nojan Khazai (Omid) Credit: Richard Davenport © RSC
Nojan Khazai (Omid), Lanna Joffrey (Roya) and Sara Hazemi (Goli) Credit: Richard Davenport © RSC

Four mature students in Iran gather to learn English after their tutor has underlined ‘English only’ on a whiteboard, and after a little thought underlined it twice more. The classroom is spartan, functional, adorned only by a small plot plant, while immediately outside can been seen a leafy tree as if a symbol of greater things beyond.

For each of the students has a motive to pass an examination in English as a foreign language, to take up study offers, to join Anglicised relatives in Canada who have turned their backs on their Farsi heritage, or just to feel more comfortable in an adopted tongue.

Anyone who has tried to immerse themselves in a foreign language will recognise the uncertainties they go through, the difficulty of understanding speech, above all the loss of confidence in expressing oneself in a way that sounds wise, or sympathetic, or funny.

Medical student Elham, feistily played by Serena Manteghi, has the greatest problem, fighting the language with which she feels ill at ease, and taking out her frustrations on the others. But, as she confesses, "I feel like an idiot. I am not an idiot, and I am caring, I am nice."

But this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Iranian-American writer Sanaz Toossi is more about culture and identity than about words. Lanna Joffrey’s Roya is the first to realise what she is about to lose in order to gain something else when complaining that her son in Canada has given her granddaughter a Western name that she cannot pronounce instead of an Iranian one, and that he is not taking her calls. Farsi means not ignoring your mother, she says.

Sara Hazemi’s 18-year-old Goli is the most enthusiastic about the possibilities ahead, on the grounds that her Iranian voice goes unheard, while Omid, played by Nojan Khazai, more fluent than the others, seems a more ambiguous figure.

The strong cast do justice to this terrific play, with a superb, moving performance by Nadia Albina as the tutor Marjan, who seems to have abandoned her everyday Farsi environment and assumed a new English-speaking persona. But as that appearance of constant encouragement and cheerfulness eventually cracks, Albina conjures an intensity of feeling that raises questions about who we are, and where we all belong.

English transfers to Kiln Theatre, London from Wednesday 5 to Saturday 29 June 2024.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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