Nirbhaya

There is a danger when dramatising an incident as horrifying as the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, in which a woman coined Nirbhaya (meaning fearless) was dragged from a bus and raped and beaten to death by six men with metal rods. Theatre companies risk sentimentalising or belittling the original event by translating it to the stage, a risk which this production avoided. In fact, the show was mainly dedicated to the knock-on effect this story had had on individual women who had undergone similar forms of violent and sexual abuse. It became a full-scale exploration of gender-related violence in Delhi, which was shown in the set resembling a bus’ interior, with hanging windows swaying appropriately. It was as if to say that many women in Delhi are living under the same circumstances as Nirbhaya was met with on that bus, and experiencing similar torture on a day-to-day basis.

The cast was made up of actual abuse victims who have come to the Fringe to deliver this information to us via dramatic monologues. It was heavy to say the least, not nuanced or subtle but bold and painfully sincere. Initially there was some awkwardness as it became clear that what we were about to witness was not a play but a handful of shocking true stories, akin to the Vagina Monologues but with no room for comedy. The atmosphere quickly changed to fear, and then to awe at each woman’s bravery, the most heart-wrenching monologue coming from a woman whose husband had burned her face with kerosene in an attempted murder. She had not seen her son in fifteen years and stood there, covered in scars, clutching a child’s pyjamas as the words of her story were translated into English by another cast member.

It was commendable that despite the show’s dedication to the truth, its artistic element was never lost. The sole male of the cast played the man in each story and his acting was chillingly good, each character seeming totally distinct from the next. The physical theatre used to emulate beatings, rapes and sexual harassment on Delhi buses was also well-choreographed and powerful, aiding the nightmarish, episodic feel of the memories.

As an exploration of trauma this piece was fascinatingly raw. Each woman was brutally honest about the paths they had taken as a result of maltreatment: rebellious promiscuity for some, rage, deluded obedience, attempted suicide, motherhood, silence or story-telling for others. An interesting directorial choice was to juxtapose the Nirbhaya story with the last monologue. The actress playing Nirbhaya often floated eerily around the stage in traditional Indian dress singing to herself. She became something of an ethereal, virginal martyred figure. The woman who told the last monologue, on the other hand, swore, was covered in tattoos, had dyed black hair, and was - self-proclaimed - anything but an ethereal, virginal, martyred figure. She told us about how she had dressed up sexily, got drunk in a bar by herself in America, and been subsequently gang raped by four men in the street. The important point being made here seemed similar to the Slutwalk movement’s message: that rape is just as horrific regardless of how the victim dresses or how they act.

If you think you can stomach such a hard-hitting piece of theatre, I would highly recommend seeing Nirbhaya. The problems women face, in Delhi and elsewhere, go far and beyond the horrific incident which occurred on a Delhi bus in 2012, and this is something well worth reminding ourselves of.

Performances

The Blurb

On a December evening in 2012, a young woman boarded a bus in Delhi. What followed changed lives forever. Internationally acclaimed playwright and director Yael Farber and an extraordinary Indian cast, bring us a searing and unforgettable new work.