“Some things are inherited without question. Like silence – it’s a code.” So says one of the extraordinary female performers in Nirbhaya. This play centres on the true story of the horrifying gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012, making international news and causing outrage across the world. The woman was dubbed Nirbhaya – fearless one – and this play’s intent is also fearless: to break the silence around acts of violence committed against women.
Nirbhaya’s brutal gang rape and subsequent death is too horrifying to imagine, but the one positive thing that came out of it is a new urgency many women have felt to speak out, to come forward with their own stories of what they have suffered. In this searing play, six female cast members do just that – they give personal testimonials about the shocking abuse they have experienced.
In a post-show Q&A, Yael Farber, the critically acclaimed director and writer of Nirbhaya, highlighted the fact that “what is unsayable becomes sayable” in the theatre, and this is why it is such a good platform for these stories. Metaphors for a loss of innocence and purity are used in the place of the “unsayable” – items like a little child’s yellow dress and a woman’s silk white slip, which become tainted by acts of sexual violence as the women’s individual testimonies are told. Such pieces of clothing are used in place of the acts of violence themselves. Even so, the stories are still very hard-hitting and emotionally shattering.
Farber also made the profound point that, through the very act of speaking out against abuse, the abused shifts the self-blame and shame they feel to where it rightfully belongs – to the abuser. Speaking out therefore becomes a political act.
Thanks to the six women in the cast, and countless other brave women around the world who are breaking the silence, dialogues around gender-based violence are being opened up. Slowly but surely, the tide is turning. The protests that took place in India after the death of Nirbhaya show that the impetus for change is there, and this play is one very important and brave step forward in the fight for gender equality.
Immensely emotive, disturbing and compelling in equal measure, I cannot recommend Nirbhaya highly enough. This is a play that will stay with you, haunting and challenging you for years to come. It demands your attention and refuses to let go.
Nirbhaya played at Southbank Centre and is currently on tour. For tickets and more information, see the Nirbhaya website.