Fearless theatre

Photograph: William Burdett-Coutts
Photograph: William Burdett-Coutts

In December 2012, 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey was gang-raped and savagely beaten by a group of men on a bus in Dehli and died of her injuries three weeks later. In Nirbhaya,(meaning Fearless), South African playwright Yaȅl Farber creates a piece of testimonial theatre centred around the incident, which ignited massive public protests in India.

The play is not just about the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, which is recounted and then enacted on the stage. It also contains the testimonies of five other victims of sexual violence – a dowry bride set alight by her in-laws, a Bollywood actress brutalised by her father, a child assaulted by a “kindly” neighbour, a married woman forced to choose between her children when finally she breaks away from her violent husband and a rebellions Indian emigrant to the States who’s gang-raped on the streets of Chicago.

What gives this production such emotional clout is that the actors are telling their own stories, not enacting a fiction. Each one – including the dowry bride who bears the horrific facial scars of her burning ─ has been the victim of sexual violence.

This may seem a strange choice for this blog ostensibly about fiction and history, since the issue of sexual violence against women is current and the play is documentary not fictional. But this is a piece of theatre that manages to combine the passion of agitprop with the artfulness and stagecraft of great drama. I saw it on Tuesday but have only now been able to formulate my responses to it. I came out of the theatre numbed and lost for words. This happens so rarely in theatre that it’s worth shouting about it when it does.

 Nirbhaya runs at the Pavillion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire until August 2.

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