Sometimes a split-second decision can change your life. On 16 December 2012, the 23 year old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey decided to board a chartered bus in the south of Delhi. Little did she know that this bus had fallen into the hands of joyriders and that by her journey’s end she would have been gang-raped and tortured to the brink of death. She would die from her injuries thirteen days later and India would be rocked by deep, mass trauma.
As the bus pulled up, Pandey was equally unaware that in eight months’ time, her life would be depicted on stage at the Assembly Hall in faraway Edinburgh. Never could she have imagined the huge crowds which would flock to see her story. And as she took her first fateful step on to that bus, I don’t suppose either that she could have seen Tychy slumped in the audience, fast asleep.
We seriously have to wind up the hysteria surrounding Yael Farber’s crass and witless “Nirbhaya.” It has received numerous five star reviews and the audience today was bigger than those of the last ten plays that I have seen put together. Yet it neither successfully dramatizes the horrific end to Pandey’s life nor puts it in any credible context. We leave the Assembly Hall with no idea as to how these six men could have acted in the way that they did. It seems likely that the gang-rape was just a random, inexplicable event, but Farber remains determined to invest it with universal significance.
The setup to this play is deeply unappealing. Pandey’s famous story is narrated by five women who have been each personally subjected to sexual abuse. It becomes rather like a celebrity author’s introduction to an anthology which promotes younger talent. Sneha Jawale was doused with kerosene by her husband and she is still visibly scarred. Another lady was abused by her uncle as a child; another was gang-raped on a night out in New York.
Roll up, roll up! Sixteen pounds to see these unique specimens! Hear their amazing stories! The incredible abused women! “Nirbhaya” is hardly theatre but a sort of circus; a dazzling extravaganza of victimhood. Except that circuses are wondrous places and I began to nod off during this performance. These women are not actors and yet the reality of their personal stories has been truncated and mangled into stilted, sub-Dickensian melodramas. They are repetitive in tone and the writing is often amateurish. For example, one lady recounts how a “twenty-five year old man” had tried to kiss her on a Delhi bus, leaving us wondering whether she had ID’ed him first.
It is repulsive that these women are being required to perform their victimhood; to appear on stage and take a bow not for what they have done but for what has befallen them. I was more interested in learning how they overcame their abuse and took control of their lives, but their stories each end with them battered to a pulp. We are being asked to lavish our pity on these women and to quake at the spectacular depravity which had defeated them.
But I’m not going to. The ordeals of these five women are horrific, but they indicate nothing about the culture or morality of a nation of 1.2 billion people. Farber portrays a Delhi in which the buses are swarming with lascivious Indians, who openly grope young girls. I’ll give a cash prize to any reader who can find more racist writing than this in the whole of Fringe theatre.
Ankur Vihal is the lone man on stage and he plays almost every male role. He is the caring friend, the incestuous little brother, the paedophile uncle, the torturing husband, and he is thus gradually unveiled as the everyman rapist. It even helps in a way that he looks dazed and perplexed during the hundreds of real-life rape scenes which he is forced to re-enact. He is the archetypal masculine machine, robotically fulfilling his destiny.
Rape is real. Women are really raped. Thankfully, this is only a small part of the human experience.