Yael Farber, whose bleakly visceral Mies Julie explored contemporary race-relations in South Africa through Strindberg’s tragedy, returns to the Assembly this year with a piece inspired by the rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2012. Nirbhaya means ‘fearless’, and was one of the pseudonyms given to Pandey by the Indian media before she was named. It’s an apt title for this harrowing series of accounts collated by Farber; six Indian women recount their own testimonies of rape and sexual violence, spurred on by Pandey’s death and the drive to fight back.
As in Mies Julie, Farber tells a cultural story through the prism of torturous personal experience, here using a headline-hitting case as a springboard to explore the entrenched attitudes in India and across the world that continue to perpetuate violence against women.
An ethereal Pandey haunts this piece, as Japjit Kaur begins by crossing the stage in a white salwar kameez shimmering with light, and sings throughout as each woman tells her story. These are dramatised by the ensemble, as the remaining women evoke the bustle of Delhi or voice the national consciousness whilst Ankur Vikal stands in for a series of violent men.
The women’s stories, of course, are difficult to hear. From Sneha Jawale, a dowry bride who was dowsed in kerosene by her husband and set on fire, to Rukhsar Kabir, abused by her father and husband as an aspiring actress, these are incredibly moving accounts that confront the physical and psychological damage wrought by violence and move many audience members to audible emotion.
To their great credit, Farber and her collaborator Poorna Jagannathan (who also appears in Nirbhaya) avoid casting rape culture and the silence and victim-blaming that typically surround cases as a specifically ‘Indian’ problem; in the final monologue, there’s an uncomfortable home truth for Western watchers as Sapna Bhavnani describes with fierce frankness her gang-rape in Chicago after moving from Mumbai.
To critique the actors’ ‘performances’, then, would miss the point – instead, we may only wonder at their courage in accessing so painful an emotional space each day, and in drawing on their horrific experiences to craft such a compelling and impassioned work of art.
Farber’s direction is fair game though, and it must be said that whilst the piece overall is well-conceived, some of her choices are a little uninspired. In particular, the sound-collage of scraps of dialogue (‘did you see the newspapers?’) from the streets comes off as slightly underdeveloped, and the movement sections can be repetitive. There’s also an over-long funeral sequence near the end, which threatens to soften the rawness of the piece in a blanket of sentimental flowers, incense and falling sand.
These are petty quibbles in the wider context however, and despite its small flaws Nirbhaya is certainly one of the stand-out shows of this year’s festival: timely, urgent and entirely fearless.