Yaël Farber’s play, prompted by a brutal gang rape in Delhi and its ensuing outcry, transforms victimhood into bravery through fearless testimony
Nirbhaya was inspired by the horrific gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012
Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire
“I still don’t want to call it what it was,” says one of the women who take to the stage, nearly all of them survivors of rape and sexual abuse. “The word tastes like defeat.”
In writer and director Yaël Farber’s impassioned and sometimes overawing production, inspired by the horrific gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012, and based on personal testimony of sexual abuse by the performers, the act of naming becomes all-important. The title, Nirbhaya, is the Hindi for “fearless”, the name Indian media gave Pandey, and the performance similarly holds two competing ideas in tight suspension: can victimhood be transformed into bravery?
The epitome of this is in the production’s form, a testimonial theatre in which the act of painful recounting becomes politically significant. It is shame that has helped to inhibit such stories, leaving everyday sexism unchallenged and fuelling a rape culture, one that is hardly confined to India. Indeed, the performance begins with a guilt that needs to be shed. “My silence is part of what that dark night brought,” says one woman, and, as the harrowing stories begin, Nirbhaya’s initial effect on the audience is to stun, to cow, to leave us helpless.
With a nimble economy of stagecraft, and an aesthetic familiar from Farber’s recent production of Mies Julie, oppression is summoned with a heavy air; smoke wafts around slashed Delhi bus seats, the vehicle’s windows hang suspended, swinging occasionally like pendulums, and the seven performers negotiate the space in a quick bustle. There is no personal space. Every bus trip risks a groping. Violation is normalised before it is internalised.
Farber is not afraid to accentuate real report with stylised depiction, an effect that makes their evocation more unshakeably vivid. One performer, Poorna Jagannathan, begins her recollection of child sexual abuse with near poetic description – the scent of flowers – as though a narrative layer offered more protection. But Snehe Jawale, a “dowry bride” who was doused in kerosene and set alight, then separated from her son, grows deeply distressed with her telling – not performing her story but living it. To be a witness to such suffering, recalled and exposed, is to feel moved but powerless.
With a late depiction of Pandey’s rape, already graphically recounted, Farber seems to counter the threat of social apathy towards rape with something like shock treatment.
The risk is that the performance becomes too traumatising and finally numbing. But Farber moves us towards a purging ritual, a community’s cleansing of Pandey’s body (represented by Japjit Kaur), and a necessary catharsis. Petals are first scattered by hand, then begin to drift down from above, like tears shed by a grieving universe for every victim, every survivor. Until August 2