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Joshua Sobel’s Sinners (The English Teacher) – Problematic Play or Problematic Production?

Last week I saw Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/The Mirror Theatre and New Rep/BCAP co-production of Joshua Sobol’s 2008 play Sinners (The English Teacher), which had its American premiere last summer at The Mirror Theatre in Vermont. I knew little about the production going in to it but I was excited to see the work of an Israeli playwright who I read has been both celebrated and criticized for his left-wing views throughout his career. The play is about an English professor, Layla, in a not-specified country governed by Sharia law whose affair with a student, Nur, leads to her being condemned to death by stoning. The play takes place in the hours before her stoning as she confronts her former lover while he gathers the stones as punishment.

When I entered the theatre I took a quick look at the stage before turning to my program. Only a few minutes later did I take a closer look at the stage and realize that what appeared to be a pile of something covered with a black cloth was actually a person buried within the stage. What I did not expect was for the actor, whose presence under the cloth is revealed almost right away, to remain “buried” within the stage from her chest down for nearly the entire play. It became apparent that this staging choice was dictated by the text, and while the literal and metaphorical symbolism of her confinement was at times powerful, I soon grew tired of what felt like the man’s endless pacing around the buried woman. I wish that this staging constraint necessitated by the text had been embraced more boldly by director Brian Cox and that the production leaned into more of the overt symbolism; I believe that a more expressionistic take on the entire play would have served it better. I’m not sure if it was the writing itself or just a poor translation, but the text was very blunt at times and Layla and Nur often felt more like ideological symbols than real people, so the naturalistic take of the production seemed ill-suited. The one moment Layla emerges from her partial burial is in a dream sequence towards the end of the play where she and Nur dance as if freed from their situation. This moment, which I presume was meant to be a moving release, instead felt jarring and misplaced within an otherwise very naturalistic production. Had the entire production been more expressionistic, I think that pivotal moment would have landed much more powerfully.

Setting aside the theatrical challenges of this production, I must also address the politics of the play. One might ask what right does a Jewish Israeli playwright have in examining the gendered politics behind a country’s implementation of strict Sharia law, but I think the greater problem at hand here is the lack of specificity behind the depiction. Immediately following the play, I believed that the lack of specificity was Sobol’s responsibility, but as I’ve been thinking more about it I believe it to be the fault of the director and the production. A more expressionistic direction that embraced the unnamed country and characters as figures would have served the play’s intent to examine how religion is used to uphold the patriarchy; the naturalistic approach instead drew attention to details that remained unspecified, such as which country the play is set in, when exactly the play takes place, and what exactly is the nature of the religious tyranny ruling the country. I presume Sobol intended to withhold such details in the interest of creating a play that deals with symbols and ideas more than the nitty gritty of Middle Eastern politics, but the production resulted in the lack of those details feeling like a vague wash of what life and people may or may not be like in a country that may or may not be Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. All of this not even to mention the play’s treatment of Islam which I found to be somewhat careless and not nearly nuanced enough. Must Layla remove her headscarf to be free when she’s released from her burial to dance with Nur? I’m not so sure. Ultimately this production of Sinners (The English Teacher) left me feeling both like it had gone on much too long and that there was much more left to be wanted.

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