Written and directed by Yaël Farber. Produced by Assembly, Riverside Studios, and Poorna Jagannathan. Presented by the Cultch in partnership with Diwali Fest. At the York Theatre on Tuesday, November 3. Continues until November 14
Nirbhaya is stunning. You could feel the impact of the material in the silence that preceded the ovation on the opening night of the show’s run at the York.
The creation of Nirbhaya was triggered by the gang rape and torture on a South Delhi bus of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who died two weeks later of her injuries. This crime, which took place in 2012, unleashed a fury that brought people to the streets in India, and prompted other women to break through socially imposed shame and speak of their own experiences of gender-based violence.
In the version of Nirbhaya that’s playing the York, we see Pandey’s story. We also bear witness as four other women relate the real-life horrors they have endured. Priyanka Bose was raped repeatedly as a child. Rukhsar Kabir’s father beat her and her husband routinely raped her. Sneha Jawale’s husband and in-laws attempted murder by throwing kerosene on her and setting her on fire.
In writer and director Yaël Farber’s staging, all of this is handled with enough restraint to make it bearable. As Jawale speaks of her five-year-old son, who was stolen from her, the burn victim holds a child’s blue shirt to her chest.
The script doesn’t let westerners off the hook; Pamela Mala Sinha was raped in Montreal when she was a student at the National Theatre School. And, considering the pervasiveness of crimes against women, it’s impossible not to think about Canada’s murdered and missing aboriginal women.
Everyone in the cast—the five women and one man (Ankur Vikal, who plays a variety of roles)—deserves our thanks for bringing these stories to us with dignity and skill.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the show that it also made me hunger for expanded terms. In the theatre, I’ve never been present for such powerful personal sharing. That said, the facts of this kind of violence and the concentration on victimization are familiar. The script doesn’t explore how the four actors who are sharing their stories survived. And although it acknowledges that the men who attacked Pandey and her boyfriend were poor, frustrated, and enraged, it doesn’t go further in placing the attack in a workable context of class and gender politics.
Artistically, Nirbhaya is excellent but not perfect. The ending goes on too long. An image of flower petals feels over the top.
But none of these caveats amount to much. Nirbhaya means “fearless”: it’s the name that journalists called Pandey before her identity became public. And it’s the right title for this show, which is fearless on its own terms.