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Edinburgh 2013: Nirbhaya - Delhi gang rape play is a compelling depiction of an awful truth


The latest play by Yael Farber, the South African director and playwright whose show, Mies Julie was a massive hit at Edinburgh last year, is based around the bus gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, which occurred in Delhi on 16 December 2012.

Pandey died 13 days later because her injuries were so severe and the event caused a worldwide outcry.

Powerful and incredibly moving, Nirhbaya prises open the crack that the real life event caused, in getting women to speak out about their own experiences of abuse. The women here offer up their own real testimonials of the horrors they've suffered at the hands of men, in a harrowing, but not alienating performance.

Farber's compelling language, layered onto the real stories, is mostly violent, angry, poetic and a bit sweary. "I want to pull my tongue from my mouth like a tree. I want to pull out its roots" captures the disgust at the atrocities well.

One of the poignant tales is that of Sneha Jawale, whose husband tried to kill her by covering her in kerosene and setting her on fire. You can still see the scars on her face.

Many of the testimonials from the actors are accompanied by disturbing mimes of sexual violence, with rolls of fabric, a child's dress and metal rods, but Jawale's story doesn't need props. "I wept when I saw my reflection on a spoon, she says, "but I am here." She tells us how she searches strange men's faces on the street to see if they're the son who was taken from her.  Movingly, as we move onto the next narrative her eyes still glint with tears.

Although much of the story is set in Dehli, where families, we are told, respect silence and are terrified of being shamed, what starts as the story of one low-caste Indian woman becomes a universal tale, not least because the women in the audience could empathise with the minor injustices, if not the more severe ones, like being groped on the bus, hit in the kidneys, or told that something is your fault because of the way you're dressed or how late you stayed out.

Farber's message is clear; this is a collective problem and we men and women must speak out. "I know my silence is part of what that dark night brought" says one actor. Silently, some women in the audience nod.

When it's over, the performers stand outside. They hug and weep and are thanked by those who saw them. And after that, they smile.