Southbank Centre's Alchemy Festival presents NIRBHAYA by Yaël Farber: Theatre Review

I’m not sure my vocabulary is wide enough to sufficiently describe what happened to me on Sunday night; the significance of what I bore witness to. Nirbhaya is something I will never get over and never forget as long as I live. Sitting here writing this, I feel myself choking up again as I relive the experience.

Nirbhaya is gifted to us through South-African writer-director Yaël Farber’s powerful combination of poetic metaphor and fierce confrontation. Responding to the dreadful events of 2012 surrounding Jyoti Singh Pandey’s death from a violent gang rape on a Delhi bus, Nirbhaya is an electrifying and mobilising example of testimonial theatre. Heartbreakingly, Jyoti cannot tell her own story; that right was ripped from her by her attackers. But Nirbhaya ­rises up for her as the streets of Delhi did following her death, with its cast of survivors adding fuel to her burning light.

The atmosphere in the auditorium preceding the show was bustling and warm, so much so that I felt a bit silly clutching a wad of preemptive tissues. A family sitting next to me struggled to cram themselves into a selfie so I offered to take a picture for them – I was awarded a Haribo sweet for my efforts! When the pre-show announcement was made and the house lights dimmed, people were still chattering, even when Yaël Farber herself appeared onstage to address the audience. She told us that during Nirbhaya’s run in New York, one of the actresses, Priyanka Bose, badly injured her knee in the middle of a performance. Wishing to carry on regardless, Farber explained that the choreography of the piece had been altered slightly to allow Bose to continue.

Jyoti’s story is at the epicentre of the play, with Japjit Kaur capturing the ethereal soul of the young woman beautifully in haunting song. The testimonies of five fellow women provide the aftershocks, empowered to break their silence and share their own memories of sexual and physical abuse in the wake of Jyoti’s attack. Poorna Jagannathan, Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir, Pamela Sinha and Sneha Jawale are relentless in their testaments – there is no pretence, no disguise and no holding back. These women, like all survivors, are the warriors of our time; the bravery they embody by participating in this torrent of revelation is completely disarming. They are, each and every one, fearless.

As the performance charged on, I felt a change in the audience. I felt something shift. There was revolution brewing in the stillness; we were tear-stained, angry, breathless, but galvanised. Sneha Jawale’s account of how her husband threw kerosene over her before striking a match was particularly difficult to listen to, but crucial to hear. Hers was the only testimony given in her native tongue, with the company’s only male actor, Ankur Vikal, translating. But even without his translation, I could feel the hurt and horror of her words. I could see her physical and emotional scars but miraculously, as she says herself, she is still here.

We all rose up for Nirbhaya that night, launching ourselves into a standing ovation even though we felt paralysed by what we’d seen. The post-show discussion that followed was a vitally important part of the whole experience as I, like so many others no doubt, felt the need for some aftercare. Yaël Farber spoke passionately about Nirbhaya’s origins and its journey, highlighting that each testimony given in the play is ‘a personal revolution’: by claiming the event of abuse for themselves, these women are removing the shame and silence that devours so many. Poorna Jagannathan then talked about authenticity, debunking the myth that performing in Nirbhaya is akin to catharsis. She said no, it’s not cathartic; it’s not therapy. It’s acknowledgement. At this point, the other actresses nod in agreement. She said it’s about her owning her story and honouring her past: ‘It walks right by my side’.

When the discussion opened up to the audience, the power of Nirbhaya was fully realised. Women raised their hands and revealed their own situations of abuse with voices thick with emotion. The actresses raised their hands too in solidarity and I held my breath in awe. In Farber’s words, this is not just a story about India; this is a story about the world.

It is traditional that the cast of Nirbhaya greet their audience as they exit the auditorium. On my way out, I placed my hand on Sneha Jawale’s shoulder and said ‘Thank you’. I didn’t know what else to say, but I knew I had to say something. Nirbhaya is the single most powerful and consuming experience I ever had in a theatre. It needs to be seen and felt by everyone.

© Hannah Roe, 2015


NIRBHAYA by Yaël Farber

Staged as part of ALCHEMY

Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX


Touring the UK:

Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton – 28th May

Oldham Coliseum – 1st & 2nd June

Cast, Doncaster – 4th, 5th & 6th June

@NirbhayaThePlay #BreakTheSilence



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