Nirbhaya: Play about the Delhi rape that shocked the world set for Edinburgh
'This drama will speak about sexual violence'
Tuesday 14 May 2013
No play currently in London has made a more powerful impact than Mies Julie. But as the production was being bedecked with five-star reviews for supercharging Strindberg's 19th-century drama with sex, and boldly transporting it to post-apartheid South Africa, the show's creator Yael Farber was focusing on a project that may make that show appear timid by comparison.
Rehearsals haven't begun yet, but this is what is known about the play so far. It will be called Nirbhaya (Hindi for "fearless one"), a pseudonym by which the victim of last December's notorious Delhi bus gang-rape became known in India. It will be performed at least in part by Indian women who will give testimony about sexual violence and intimidation that they have themselves experienced. And most tellingly of all, it will in some way reenact the assault, allegedly conducted by five men and one 17-year-old juvenile, which led to the agonising death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, waves of street protests across India, and revulsion across the world. If all goes to plan Nirbhaya will open at the Assembly Hall in August during the Edinburgh Fringe.
When we met in London's Riverside Studios, where Mies Julie is playing until Sunday, Farber was clearly energised by the belief that her next play would help dispel the silence that surrounds sexual violence in India and beyond. "The play will speak about sexual violence through the aperture of that one moment," she said. "This will be a call to arms."
This won't be Farber's first testimonial play. Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise has the clearest parallels with Nirbhaya. Like Amajuba, Nirbhaya will be cast with performers who recount their own testimonies.
The actress Poorna Jagannathan, Farber's collaborator on the Nirbhaya project, approached Farber with the idea of a theatrical response to the Delhi rape. Jagannathan had seen Amajuba in New York in 2006 and had that play in mind when she conscripted several women from Mumbai's acting community for the Nirbhaya workshops. As with Amajuba, each actor would bring their own testimony to the piece. Not for a second did it occur to Jagannathan that any of them would not have experienced sexual violence in some way. "Look, if you're a woman living in India you have testimony," she says. "We didn't screen." For Farber, who lives in Montreal, the stories may be Indian, but the silence that surrounds them exists in many cultures.
When Jagannathan was raising funds for the workshop one girl said to her, "Yeah, but this play will never reach the rapists." What difference can a play like Nirbhaya make?
"I believe that if I had seen a play like this when I was on that bus in Delhi, I would have said something to them," says Jagannathan.
It remains to be seen whether Nirbhaya will encounter opposition. Even the relatively benign Vagina Monologues, which has been touring India for a decade, is banned in certain parts of the country. "I expect to encounter surprise", says Jagannathan, who is better known in India as a glamorous TV and film actor and for appearing on the covers of India's up-market fashion and lifestyle magazines. "But there has never been a better time to make this piece of work."
Farber meanwhile, rather like the play's title, has no fear of opposition. "The beauty of freedom of speech is that people will have something to say. But certainly it's a volatile issue. And if we don't encounter opposition we haven't done our job."
And then, with the kind of steel that has characterised much of her work, she adds, "I am interested neither in protecting the audience from, nor sensationalising, the horror."
Nirbhaya will open at the Assembly Hall in August
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