Broadcast text review: NIRBHAYA

by Lynn on November 27, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following review was broadcast on Friday, November 26, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. Nirbhaya at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre until November 29, 2015.

Phil Taylor was the host.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What are you talking about this week?

I’m just talking about one show because it’s so important and deserves the time. I’m talking about Nirbhaya at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. It’s a co-production with Nightwood Theatre in association with Amnesty International. It’s played in London, Edinburgh, New York and now here.

Why is it so important?

Because it’s about rape and how, for the most part, the victims had been silent, until a terrible event galvanized them and they came forward with their own horror stories. Those stories are the basis of Nirbhaya.

It’s also about a culture and attitude that condones rape behaviour because of a deep disregard and disrespect for women as human beings.

What was the event that proved to be the impetus for the show?

It was the gang-rape and brutalization of the young woman who got on a bus in Delhi with her male companion one evening in Dec. 2012.

The men on the bus and the driver, raped and tortured her for an hour; beat up the young man; threw them on the road naked after they were finished and no one helped them for two hours even though the man called out for help repeatedly, until the police and an ambulance came. She died 13 days later of her injuries.

Ordinarily there would have been an excuse of a trial and the men would have gotten off. But there was such outrage of women and supporting men in India and world-wide that this was treated seriously and the guilty men were sent to prison. The woman on the bus was not named for some time. We now know her name was Jyoti Singh Pandey. But until the name was revealed she was called “Nirbhaya”, ‘fearless one’ in Hindi.

Women who had been raped and beaten and had been silent for years about what happened to them, suddenly were galvanized to speak up and give voice to their own stories. And that’s how the play Nirbhaya came about.

Writer-director Yaël Farber, a South-African director, now living in Montreal, decided to do a play about a selection of those women, have them tell their own stories, but have the central story be that of Nirbhaya.

What are the stories?

All of these women except one is either an actress, or writer, or in the arts. So they have all triumphed over their traumas.

One woman was repeatedly raped when she was nine years old by a family friend she called “uncle.” One woman was raped beginning when she was nine years old into her teen years by multiple men. She married but then after a blissful three weeks her husband began to beat her. Her mother-in-law kept her a kind of prisoner in the house.

The woman had two children, a son and daughter. When things got really bad she had to choose between her children when she left the marriage. One was a dowry bride—her parents gave money to her husband and his family in exchange for the marriage. Again, she was raped and beaten by her husband. In a rage he threw kerosene on her and set her on fire. She is the only non-actress and hearing her harrowing story leaves you reeling.

Pamela Mala Sinha is the only Canadian of South Asian descent in the group and she was raped in Montreal when she was going to the National Theatre School. A man broke into her apartment and raped her. Unlike the other stories, Ms Sinha was not shunned by her family. She was supported and sought help. She also wrote her award winning play about the experience, called Crash.

So while I don’t deny that Ms Sinha’s story is shattering, I don’t think it really belongs in this show that is about women who could not or did not speak out until the rape on the bus galvanized them.

The majority of the women in these stories, including the titled story, took place in Delhi, in India. It’s a terrible indictment of a culture and attitude that condones this kind of behaviour.

You make a universal statement by telling a specific story—in other words the stories about the Indian women raped and beaten in Delhi. You muddy the waters when you also add a story from Canada.

It’s almost as if Ms Farber, the director/writer doesn’t trust us to get it. Yes, rape culture is universal. But by adding a Canadian story, she’s forcing her agenda.

These are tough, harrowing stories. How does the writer/director deal with them?

One of the creators of the show said that every woman in India has a story like these. Farber beautifully sets up the surroundings and attitudes. Women talk of being groped just walking along the street. Buses are always crowded in Delhi and the women talk of being fondled, fingered, and groped as they tried to get on and off the bus. So there are very busy scenes as people rush along and as a man passes a women he just reaches out and fondles her breast. With this happening as a matter of course and the women not having any recourse to retaliate, they take this treatment silently.

Nirbhaya, is a constant presence in the production, dressed in white, singing as she oversees what is happening. We don’t hear her story immediately.

Each woman comes forward and simply tells her story. Occasionally the only man in the cast (who plays both good and bad characters) interacts with the woman telling the story; the results are both touching and chilling.

Tell us about the production.

This is a typical Yaël Farber production. It’s full of breathtaking images that are both symbolic and metaphoric; a beautiful use of light, shadow, sound, and silhouette.

As the audience files into the auditorium there are seven people already sitting in seats in the theatre. They are the participants. I set next to the woman who had been raped at nine. She is absolutely still. Her hands are folded in front of her.

When the show starts, the participants raise their arm and one by one they walk from their seats to the stage. They are symbolic of how they are in fact like we are; they are among us.

There is a structure stage right on the stage with seats on either side of an aisle. This is the bus where Nirbhaya will be raped and brutalized. There are panels suspended at the back that sway back and forth as the stories are told.

The woman who was raped at nine holds up the little white dress she wore. She lays it on a swath of silk on the floor. She is on one end of the silk. The man who raped her is at the other end. The man quickly pulls the material towards him so that the dress is close to him. He lies on the floor and puts his hand on the dress and lifts up part of the hem and flutters it in his fingers.

That is a stunning image of raw sex and represents what this young girl endured. It’s made all the more powerful because the audience’s imagination is pricked.

Because Nirbhaya is dead, she could not tell her story so we saw it enacted. The rape is simulated as is the beating. The scene ended with her on the floor and the attackers above her with rods and clubs in their hands. The audience can imagine what happens next.

But Farber is not content to let us imagine the rest. Later the scene is repeated and expanded. She doesn’t stop with the men standing over Nirbhaya with their steel rods and long poles held aloft. She continues with the brutalization and we see the full force of what happened and I think that’s a mistake.


Because this central story leaves nothing to our imagination. If the audience can’t use their imagination, then the story becomes almost numbing and you look away. Looking away is what you DON’T WANT!

As I said at the beginning, this is an important story, but I found so often too much was laid on us. There are too many stories. Cut, either a story or two and edit the length of the rest of the stories.

There is a sense of its own importance. I thought so many of these performances are underlined in neon as if we wouldn’t get the significance unless it was shown. The audience isn’t stupid. Trust them. A dispassionate telling of a harrowing story is more compelling than the story-teller sobbing all the way through the telling of her own ordeal.

Theatre is about illusion. The audience are the ones who imagine the horror. Being emotional in the telling does not achieve the same result.

While Farber is a brilliant director, too often in her work she doesn’t know when to stop. The suspended panels sway almost constantly back and forth—what is that?

There is a beautiful ritualistic preparation for burial of Nirbhaya, with the women washing the body, and swathing her in cotton sheets. This is followed by (overpowering) incense, flower petals falling from the flies; sand flowing from a suspended basket.

Enough with the images after images in a show already over long. It seemed to have ended three times. With so much effort given to show how important this all was, instead of being engaged, I just wanted it to end and be done with it. I don’t think it’s what they intended.

Would you recommend it?

Sure, but I want people to listen to those stories, ponder and consider them; be aware of the impact but also be aware that these harrowing stories could have been told in a less laboured, deliberate more compelling way.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

Nirbhaya plays at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre until November 29.

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