Review by Sarah Higgins
Nirbhaya, “fearless”, is what the press named the woman who was attacked and raped on a Delhi bus in December 2012. Jyoti Singh Pandey’s story incited a world-wide push for action surrounding sexual violence. Yaël Farber and the company behind Nirbhaya are still pushing.
The Cultch’s production of Nirbhaya, written and directed by Farber, is a hard look at sexual violence through the stories of five women. Pandey’s story is enacted with respect and grace by the company, with Japjit Kaur as Pandey, while each of the other performers tells her own story. The blend of theatricality with real world situations is often beautiful, and helps create space for audience reactions. We know these women’s stories aren’t our own, but we are allowed to feel as if they are (and to let them spark in us, too, the desire for change).
Paul Lim’s lighting is starkly evocative. The cinematic use of spotlights builds beauty, and pacing, with moments that feel like visual art. Abhijeet Tambe’s sound is woven in from the top of the play, when a single note is played during the audience’s entrance. With that note, and the placement of actors throughout the house, we are immediately immersed in Nirbhaya’s world. Oroon Das’ set design is a mix of simplicity and complexity–and the simplicity works best. The bus, suggested by seats with poles, is perfect, and each woman’s props are well-chosen. But the windows are confusing, not used to their fullest potential—and the fog can be too much at times.
There’s a language of movement created in this piece that transcends barriers. At one point, Pandey’s story is told without narration, immersing us in it even more. At several others, the raising of a hand becomes a symbol of taking a stand, together, by telling a story. Farber embraces the ability of theatre to open us up to stories, and uses it to open us up to each other.
A major strength of this play is how the audience reacts to it (and that it is seeking that reaction)—so Farber gives the audience space to hear each other. During Sneha Jawale’s performance, most theatrical elements are laid aside to let her simply tell her story. There is no underlying recorded sound—her silences are filled with weeping (her own, and the audience’s). Nirbhaya doesn’t shy away from the graphic nature of its stories, so audible emotional reactions are common.
One weakness of the production is the silence of its men. Ankur Vikal plays every man, and because he only speaks as himself a couple times, he is in danger of becoming a faceless prop. Farber has said that this play is about humanity, so perhaps its men need more voice to bring that out.
Nirbhaya is a heartbreaking, active opening of the door against sexual violence—a multi-storied call to action. They’ve started the conversation—you need to keep it going. So be fearless, and raise your hand.
Nirbhaya plays at the York Theatre through November 14.
Please note the Vancouver run is an adapted version as Poorna Jagannathan was not available to appear.
Sarah Higgins is into her second year of her Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. She’s foremost a playwright, and has had work produced at both edges of the country—from Little Mountain Lion Productions in Vancouver to a recent show in the Halifax Fringe festival.