A Hindi word meaning ‘fearless’, Nirbhaya is a name the Indian public gave to Jyoti Singh Pandey, the young Delhi woman who was violently gang raped on a bus last December, dying of her wounds 13 days later.
Tackling the subject of abuse against women with a bracing directness, South African director-playwright Yael Farber’s new show brings together a troupe of five Indian victims of physical and sexual abuse and has them dramatically retell Pandey’s story and their own (aided by two pro actors, Ankur Vikal and Japjit Kaur).
As you’d expect, it’s oft-gruelling stuff – all the stories are terrible, but the visibly scarred Sneha Jawale’s account of her husband’s attempt to burn her to death is as harrowing as anything you’ll ever see on a stage. And yet there is something palpably empowering about the flashing-eyed anger with which they share their stories, and while there are no real answers offered, the mere existence of the show is a happy ending of sorts.
Some glossy wordless sequences feel ill judged, but ‘Nirbhaya’ isn’t a success through gloss but because of the unvarnished potency of listening to these women share their ordeals. It is not as accomplished as Farber’s 2012 Fringe enormo-hit ‘Mies Julie’, but that was hardly the point, and she deserves enormous credit for getting these women comfortable enough to talk about the terrible things that have happened to them. At a time when rape threats have become casual social media currency, it’s intensely sobering to have a play like this that reminds us so viscerally of the real horrors of sexual violence.