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Testing the Echo
Besides trying to reach a definition of what it means to be British (an amalgam of several races and backgrounds going back to Normans and Saxons and Celts) the play explores prejudices about immigration and tells the personal story of some immigrants who have enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages class. To become a British citizen today you have to either pass a test about life in the UK, which has all kinds of obscure questions that many British born people would have trouble answering correctly, or enrol on a college ESOL course which has a citizenship component. Apparently the tests contain no questions on British history because the question setting committee could not agree on what British history actually is!
Edgar's play has several plots apart from the main one of the English teacher Emma (Teresa Banham) teaching a class where one of her students makes a complaint against her. The student Nasim (Sirine Saba) is an Egyptian Muslim and she objects to being made to talk about a "full English breakfast" which includes sausages and bacon made from pork, which to her is Haraam or forbidden. She also finds offensive being taught by a gay, male teacher (with hair streaks) and she protests at Emma's exercise of asking students to debate against their own particular point of view on the wearing of hijab. This of course raises issues of diversity, and British tolerance towards those who might take those freedoms away. Comparisons are made between the student protests of 1968 and those today about the wearing of the jilbab but the point is also made that these protests are pro-conservatism rather than for progressive social change.
Other story threads are those of an Arab junkie who is put through a "cold turkey" cure by a fellow Muslim and of a Ukranian woman, Tetyana (Kirsty Bushell) who is married to Aziz, a Pakistani and who thinks that if she leaves her husband, she will be forced to leave the UK. The family scenes are played with Aziz's daughter Muna (Farzana Dua Elahe) coaching her stepmother.
Matthew Dunster has brilliantly directed almost seventy quick fire scene changes where a head scarf can convey a change of character and the cast of eight take on up to four roles each. The result is a very fast moving play overbrimming with discussion stimuli. The ensemble cast work admirably hard in this acting challenge of role switch, fine acting and direction which Out of Joint is famous for. There are also cut video slices injecting the opinions of others and some of the civil servants who devised the citizenship test. I liked the dinner party conversations of Emma and her friends which are interrupted with a cut to Nasim and her hard line interjections in the ESOL class. There are a group of workmen in reflective gear voicing the ordinary man in the street's opinion where one of them Chong (Ian Dunn) is cramming for the test.
In the traditions of political theatre Testing the Echo satisfies at many levels and deserves to find an audience who will appreciate David Edgar's writing and Out of Joint's interesting production.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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