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Aylin Oyan Salahshoor in English at Soulpepper Theatre Company.DAHLIA KATZ/Soulpepper

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At Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto

Written by Sanaz Toossi

Directed by Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia

Starring Ghazal Partou, Aylin Oyan Salahshoor, Sepehr Reybod

What is lost and gained in learning a new language? That is the question at the heart of Sanaz Toossi’s English, now playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Composed of 22 vignettes that take place in the classroom of an Iranian learning institute in the late 2000s, the play made its world premiere in New York in 2022 and is currently being presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Toossi’s work was written and programmed prior to the death of Mahsa Amini in September, 2022. The young Iranian woman was hospitalized after being stopped and detained by Tehran’s morality police for her reportedly inappropriate attire. She later died after being in a coma for three days, her passing leading to widespread protests and calls for reform, which were ultimately met with brutal government crackdowns.

English, with its themes of shifting identities, culture and notions of home, seems particularly poignant in light of such a tragedy, especially considering its all-Iranian ensemble is largely comprised of young women, all of them wearing hijabs not unlike the one worn by Amini in the now-famous image of her.

The English language, says wide-eyed 18-year-old student Goli (Aylin Oyan Salahshoor), is like rice: “You take some rice and you make the rice whatever you want.” Might these students indeed be allowed to make themselves into “whatever they want”? Will learning English open up new doors, even as it closes others? What “self” ends where a second language begins? These are questions students grapple with as they prepare for the notoriously difficult TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) under the guidance of ever-patient Marjan (Ghazal Partou).

Ghazal Partou and Sepehr Reybod have a flirtatious moment in a scene in English.DAHLIA KATZ/Soulpepper

Their reasons for learning are as varied as their backgrounds: Goli is simply keen to learn; Roya (Banafsheh Taherian) has a son who lives in Canada and must learn English if she is to live with him and his family; Elham (Ghazal Azarbad) intends to go to medical school in Australia; Omid (Sepehr Reybod) wants to brush up on his seemingly-perfect skills. As for Marjan, she teaches largely because she misses her old life in Manchester, where she lived for a time. “We think in English, we laugh in English… we fill our lungs with English,” she says as she tells students to “let go” of “any pull” they may feel for their so-called “Iranian-ness.”

Elham ponders what would have happened had the Persian empire of Cyrus the Great remained intact; the group recoils when they learn Marjan called herself “Mary” in England. Still, they try hard to impress one another through multiple games of wordsy hot-potato, volleying bits of vocabulary (“Spoon!” “Fork!” “Dish!” “Dishwasher!”) in rapid-fire succession. With rhythmic pacing by co-directors Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia, the circle-like blocking amidst a maze of boxy wooden desks emphasizes the simultaneous tension and unity of the disparate group.

Co-director Dehbonehie’s set design (a simple square and a single window overlooking a streetscape) is appropriately claustrophobic. When Marjan screens the 1999 film Notting Hill to watch with Omid as comprehension practice, the set’s huge backdrop is entirely illuminated, with Julia Roberts’ smile immersive, immense, overbearing. The powerful cultural symbolism is given gentle counterpoint via the romantic chemistry conveyed (if never manifested) between teacher and student.

Partou and Reybod skillfully negotiate this tension with grace and tenderness, while Azarbad and Taherian offer compelling, highly watchable portraits of women who, though at different points in their lives, are equally passionate about their culture and cognizant of the need to leave the country. In one of the many voicemails left for her unseen son, Roya makes a show of her linguistic progress by firing off random facts and figures, all of which are voiced in slow if heavily-accented English: “I know all the numbers: forty-three. Five hundred and thirty-eight. And seven.”

The play features the characters speaking English throughout (for the most part), but with the audience silently understanding that sans accent means they are speaking Farsi; a (heavy) accent means they are speaking English. Such a technique not only forces more careful listening in both modes of expression, but forces an examination around perceptions relating to the direct experience of those accents. Place, position and power shift according to such (consciously or unconsciously held) perceptions, an idea not unlike the one Brian Friel explores in Translations, his own language-related play from 1980. There, as here, language and culture are inexorably, inevitably tied.

Cultural baggage may be heavy, but in Soulpepper’s presentation, it is also thoughtful, inspiring and quite possibly the stuff of revolution.

English runs to March 5, 2023.