— Production photos
Nirbhaya is one of the most powerful and disturbing plays I’ve ever seen. Even knowing more or less what it would be about—the gang rape of a young woman by six men on a Delhi bus, and her subsequent death—I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it is to watch and listen to.
Scripted and directed by Montreal’s Yaël Farber and co-produced by Assembly, Riverside Studios in the UK and India’s Poorna Jagannathan Productions, the play is beautifully staged, if that word makes sense in a production entirely concerned with horrifying violence against women. And the violence is highly stylized. When a man brutally beats his wife, for instance, it’s done with a cloth that he continuously slams against the floor on either side of her.
But what makes Nirbhaya such an overwhelming experience is that, in addition to portraying the gang rape, each of the female performers other than Japjit Kaur, who plays the victim of that unspeakable crime, tells her own true story of extraordinary abuse, having been prompted by the gang rape to go public. The political message is clear: the culture of misogyny and violence must end, and not just the victims have to help make that happen. The fingers are not just pointed at India, either. One of the actresses, Pamela Mala Sinha, was raped in Montreal.
But India bears the brunt of the play’s critique. Delhi is described as “hell on earth for women,” and the autobiographical stories told by the three Indian women performers (Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir and Sneha Jawale) pile on so many terrible details—rapes, beatings, burnings, attempted murder, stolen children, and much of this done to them by family members, not all of them men—that it’s hard to feel anything but repulsion towards that particular culture. The one man in the cast, Ankur Vikal, plays many of the victimizers, but he also plays some good, sympathetic male characters, and some of the victimizers are played by the women. So the condemnation is as broadly cultural as it is gender-based.
In Farber’s staging the gang rape victim—nicknamed Nirbhaya, or “the fearless one,” though I’m not sure why—glides around dressed all in white like a ghost, softly singing in a high-pitched Indian dialect, haunting the stage as the others tell their stories. Then near the end we return to her rape and death in a series of impressionistic but awful scenes that conclude with a long, lovely, ritualistic funeral. Lighting, music, flower petals falling from the sky all contribute to the aestheticization of the horror, but the horror is still what I was left with at the end.
That and the faint hope that out of these awful, awful events, and the brave women who relate them, something good might come.