Taking the form of personal testimonies, Yael Farber’s brave, vital and, sadly, relevant play Nirbhaya gives a voice to victims of sexual abuse, doing so in a production that is raw, slow- burning and, at times, difficult to watch, writes Philip Cummins
TAKING the form of personal testimonies, Yael Farber’s brave, vital and, sadly, relevant play Nirbhaya gives a voice to victims of sexual abuse, doing so in a production that is raw, slow- burning and, at times, difficult to watch.
Based solely on the horrific 2012 gang rape and fatal assault of 23 year- old physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh Pandey in South Delhi, the sparseness of the stage and the plain, black costumes of the actors all give focus to extraordinary testimonies that are harrowing, eloquent and, at times, funny.
Subtle flourishes in the set design go a long way in a production that balances confessional utterance with stagecraft and a creative use of the space. Tattered, worn- out bus seats bunch together, downstage right. Hanging upstage centre, swinging like pendulums representing time, perception and, perhaps, a swinging blade representing death, are the windows of the bus in which the victim met her cruel fate.
Deeply embedded in Farber’s Nirbhaya (meaning, roughly, “fearless one”) is the idea that sexual desire and acts of self- satisfaction and violation bubble under the surface of our society, whether seemingly innocuous or menacing. In a brilliant scene underpinned with subtlety, a crowded bus journey into Delhi finds women groped by shameless male passengers, prompting us to ask just how accepting both the society and its culture are towards random acts of sexism and sexual assault in broad daylight.
Throughout the play, the audience is involved and challenged. Like Pat Kinevane’s excellent Silent, the play makes its demands of any audience, continually asking us how accepting any of us are towards acts casual sexism and misogyny. Farber’s depiction of the fatal gang rape of the victim fulfills its intention to shock. Much as attitudes towards sections in society inevitably swell with a watershed moment, the feeling is that the entire play and the ideas expressed within the play are leading to that shocking scene.
Finishing on a burial ritual focused around Pandey’s dead body, blue and yellow flower petals fall from the ceiling around both Pandey’s body and those in Pandey’s community, representing both the loss of innocence and, one hopes, change. It’s a stunning, slow- burning denoument to a play that, like the windows of the bus, swings in extremities: from innocence to violation, safety to menace, trauma to closure.