August 21, 2013
When we talk about theatre we often associated it with entertainment, the glittery West End of London the stage for an abundance of all singing all dancing jazz-handed fun. This association has certainly been the case in my own experiences – my love of musical theatre often blinding me from the other possibilities of performance. Escaping up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a time when I rip off my theatrical-blinkers, and delve deep into a new world of theatre – beyond just entertainment.
Sitting on my own on the front row of Assembly Hall, I soon forgot about the vast auditorium we were in and the half empty audience behind me, as I strained to prevent myself from uncontrollably sobbing at the preview show of Yael Farber’s production of ‘Nirbhaya’.
Nirbhaya – the Hindi word for ‘fearless’ – was the word closely associated with Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old medical student who was brutally gang-raped on a Delhi bus last December, and later died from her injuries.
Devised from the real experiences of the six women who perform it, ‘Nirbhaya’ intimately fuses Farber’s powerful script which tells the tragic tale of Jyoti Singh Pandey with the performers’ personal stories of sexual abuse. The story of Jyoti that moved the Indian population to protest last year takes prominence as the dominant narrative, while the interjecting monologues from each of the six female performers work to demonstrate that everyone has their own hidden truths that they bury deep within them.
Particularly moving is the monologue of Sneha Jawale, translated sentence by sentence by another cast member, as she tells how her husband doused her in kerosene and set fire to her before stealing her son away. Her still severely scarred face shows evident distress as she relives the experience, tears glistening in her eyes for the remainder of the performance.
But is this too real for theatre?
Well, I think no. The piece’s artistic and creative mastery saves it from a coarse brutality that its content could become and instead frames the subject matter not necessarily in a way that is easy to digest, but that utterly engages the audience and deeply affects them. There are very clever artistic decisions that bind these powerful stories together, namely the one male actor who, playing all the male characters in the piece, fluidly switches from innocent younger brother to loving husband to gang rape leader. His performance is utterly believable in every role and works to heighten the impact of the women’s stories. The whole piece revolves around the bus on which the tragedy took place, with swinging bus window frames building tension and a clever use of chairs, lighting and movement to create the illusion of a hot, sweaty bus ride through New Delhi.
The violence, which of course is integral to the piece, is dealt with sensitively despite not shying away from making the audience wince. Specifically, some critics have criticised the violence as too graphic – I would disagree. The depiction of the events that occurred on that bus last December suddenly freezes at the moment of intense violence, and the victim slowly and gracefully leaves the tableau and therefore is removed from the action that follows. This I feel has an important effect. When all of a sudden the violence is mimed to an imagined body, it makes it less real and more watchable. By making it more watchable, it becomes so much more real for the audience as we watch on, hopelessly trying to escape from our imagination.
You might question, why do these performers put themselves through so much pain as they relive their experiences just for the sake of theatre? Well, theatre is about telling stories, and sometimes these are stories that are hard to tell. ‘Nirbhaya’ as a single play at the Edinburgh Fringe might not change the world, but the sacrifices that these women make as they share their most intimately painful memories, contributes to the creation of a powerful and urgent theatre that will unquestionably move and change the individual.
Check out information to see ‘Nirbhaya’ at Ed Fringe here. If you are in Edinburgh go and see it! Running until the 26th August.
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