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'English' by Sanaz Toosi

Presented by Segal Centre for Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre

Dahlia Katz

Dave Rabjohn

This week, Soulpepper Theatre is hosting the Canadian premiere of Sanaz Toossi’s ‘English.’ With an all-Iranian cast (mostly women) the play cannot help but echo the political fervour of contemporary Iran.

Although set over a decade ago, the play continues to evoke the roiling tragedy of Iranian life, especially that of women and girls.

Originally cancelled by the pandemic, Soulpepper’s producers made a fine choice in opening their 2023 season with this bold and clever production. Themes of migration, divided families and the power of language filter through a seemingly simple Iranian classroom devoted to the learning of English. What is not simple are the complexities of the characters’ relationships with their country, their families and their fellow students.

Set in an English classroom in Karaj, Iran, four Farsi-speaking students and one teacher travail over the difficulties of learning a new language. Each class brings new comic highlights of the awkwardness of English, but beneath that, each class also burnishes problems of self-identity and confused relationships among each character.

Each student takes the English course for various reasons – to pass essential exams, prepare for migration, or to reach out to far-away loved ones. Goli begins with some awkward efforts at conversation. Played by Aylin Oyan Salahshoor, she is shy and awkward physically as she manipulates hands and feet while fighting with the language. Roya is played with subtlety by Banafsheh Taherian – an emotional mother clinging to her phone and her hopes of re-engaging with her son in America. Ghazal Azarbad plays Elham with fierce bravado – she is angry, competitive and unbending. Each student has a slightly different relationship with the teacher, Marjan, played skillfully by Ghazal Partou.

Ms. Partou’s character, and performance, constantly struggle to hold the class together while balancing her own pressures and doubts in life. Omid (Sepehr Reybod) plays the only male student who clearly has the most mysterious background. Some students, like Roya, grow more deeply into themselves while others, like Omid, have layers peeled away and become exposed.

Low volume during the opening scenes was a distraction as we leaned in to hear the dialogue. This was especially problematic in a play based on language issues. The pace and the volume improved as the play moved towards its climax.

Anahita Dehbonehie played dual roles of both co-director and set designer – this was evident in the integration of the acting and the set. A beautifully designed floor reflecting intricate Iranian tiles, contrasted with beat-up classroom chairs and typically weary-looking fluorescent lighting – perhaps a subtle consideration of the low priority of education. A full-length window to the outside street was a portal to the context of political and social upheaval.

As mentioned, the play was set in 2009 in the midst of yet another political and societal crisis in Iran. Little has changed as new protests inflame Iran after the murder of young Mahsa Amini. Toossi’s play is universal with reflections on humanity and echoing the longing for a free Iran.

‘English’ by Sanaz Toossi
Presented by Segal Centre for the Performing Arts and Soulpepper

Performers: Ghazal Azarbad, Ghazal Partou, Sepehr Reybod, Aylin Oyan Salahshoor, Banafsheh Taherian
Director: Anahita Dehbonehie, Guillermo Verdecchia
Costumes: Niloufar Ziaee
Sound: Rob Denton
Lighting: Tim Rodrigues

Runs through: March 5, 2023.

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