12 March 2014
directed by Yael Farber
It’s taken a while for me to gather my thoughts on Nirbhaya. On my journey home, and sitting back in the comfort of my flat after the show, my mind was a whirl of emotions. I’ve never felt quite like this after any other theatrical experience: sorrow, shock, respect, inspiration, anger. Nirbhaya is, without a doubt, the most remarkable evening I’ve ever spent at the theatre.
I wouldn’t say it was the most enjoyable — how can it be, the subject matter being what it is? When I told people about the play, the reaction was mostly one of surprise, incomprehension even, that a play would have been written about this most horrible of events. Yet Nirbhaya is much more than a retelling of a horrific act of brutality. Yes, the build-up and first moments of the vicious gang rape and assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey are presented on stage, and made me want to shout out loud at those playing the attackers to stop, such is the horror. The execution of her burial rites and preparations are touching, beautiful and tender and overflow with that whirlwind of emotion, while somehow remaining peaceful. But Nirbhaya also explores the reaction to these events and their reverberation around India and around the world. Women step forward to tell their stories; to break the silence.
What is so extraordinary is that the stories these women tell are not stories at all: they are the truth. Each of these actresses have experienced what they are recounting, lending almost unbearable pain into their words, but also inspirational honesty. Despite knowing that the play had already been performed night after night for many performances, I really felt that I was witnessing an act of bravery, of purging — indeed, an act of war against violence and abuse of women.
At times it is hard to remember to breathe as the force of the truth that these women, and countless, countless others have experienced hits you. Some of these women are famous in their native India — I can’t help thinking that, if Priyanka Bose were a British soap actress, her story of abuse could be all over the Daily Mail or similar by now, and this contrast of silence is startling — but one, Sneha Jawale, is not an actress. The tears that stream down her face as she tells of her dowry bride status, her husband’s cruel abuse and the disappearance of her son, are absolutely real. And it is truly heartbreaking, in a way I have never experienced in a theatre before.
Yet this is not just a confessional spoken word performance. There is artistry here, in the purity and beauty of Japjit Kaur’s (the representation of Nirbhaya herself) singing; in the simplicity of the childhood objects given to each actor as they tell their story; in the narrow ‘bus’ in which a small cast manage to portray the claustrophobia of Delhi buses, and the inability to escape from groping hands that become the norm. It would’ve been easy to rely on the shock of the accounts and abandon production values; moreover, it also would have been easy to present the single male actor always as the attacker, and the women as the victims. This is not the case: Ankur Vikal becomes attacker, victim, observer, son — the production sensibly avoids the scape-goating of all men. As in her brilliantly intense Mies Julie, Yael Farber has an wonderful way of combining horror and beauty in relevant, thought-provoking and hard-hitting theatre that takes your breath away in the true sense of the words.
In the post-show discussions, it becomes even more apparent that this is the most incredible, inspirational group of people I’ve ever had the privilege to share a room with. In the same week that I also watched the BBC’s broadcast of ‘Oh Do Shut Up Dear! Mary Beard on the Public Voice of Women‘, the strength of women’s voices speaking out seems to be a more pertinent issue than ever, and these women’s bravery and absolute determination to break the silence is unforgettable and impossible to ignore. They are keen to point out that, although inspired by events in India — both horrific brutality and forceful protest against it — this is not an ‘India problem’. It’s fascinating to hear Farber reflecting on similar problems in her native South Africa and, indeed, Sapna Bhavnani tells of the gang rape she suffered in Chicago, America — where, supposedly, women have freedom and safety. This is not an issue that anyone can turn their back on and say “it’s nothing to do with me”; it’s a universal issue, and enough is enough.
This is surely a work of theatre like no other. Nirbhaya is currently playing in India, funded by public donations. I don’t doubt that the reactions will be extraordinary, as they should be all over the world to this incomparable piece of theatre.