How to write about this show? This is a play beyond words, above star ratings and separate from the usual concerns of reviewing: it would feel pointless, wrong even, to comment on the lighting design or staging, to criticise the stagecraft, when the stories being presented on stage are true. Six women and one man stand, one arm raised, and tell us their stories. These are stories that no-one should hear, stories that shouldn’t be true.
And yet, because they are, because the horrors and abuses described are all-too-real, we have a duty to listen and we have a duty to respond. This is not a piece that’s beyond words, then, but a piece that demands them. It cries out for silences to be broken and for victims to claim a place as survivors. As these truly inspiring women take the stage, one by one, they call out, “I am here.”
Women in black represent the multitude, they are the women of the world who are abused, beaten, raped, treated as second-class citizens, trashed because they are women. Moving behind and through them is a woman in white: she represents Jyoti Singh, the 23-year-old woman gang-raped and beaten on a bus in New Dehli on 16 December 2012. The attack shocked the world, and catalysed protests across the globe – women and men speaking up, standing together and trying to reclaim the night.
The show takes Singh’s death as its starting point, and through it explores the wider problem of sexual violence against women and girls. Yes, many women are raped in India, but so, too, are they in the US and elsewhere. South African playwright Yael Farber is clear that this is not an Indian problem, this is a worldwide problem.
The show is not perfect but it is powerful. Nirbhaya means “fearless” in Hindi, and is the name given to Singh before her parents decided to release her real name. Onstage, she literally hands each woman the prop to tell her own terrible story – she gives them the power to break their silence. The metaphor is clear, and the show is slow and deliberate and powerful as it catalogues the violence that these women have undergone. One story, of a woman doused in kerosene and set alight by her husband, leaves the teller choked, weeping, almost unable to continue. And yet she does. It is too much. It makes you want to leave, to cover your ears. It tells you why you need to listen, why you need to stay.
I’m not giving a star rating to this show. This is not even a real review. The theatre isn’t what’s important here. Go and see it, and see if you can still breathe at the end. The show is about the power of words, the power of broken silences and being prepared to speak out. It’s about reclaiming the night, speaking up for those who are silent and powerless. It’s a show about unspeakable things, spoken of. It will leave you speechless.
Nirbhaya is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 26th August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.