On the night of December 16th 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in urban Delhi heading for home. What followed changed her life and countless others forever.’ She was brutally raped, beaten, and died a fortnight later. Legally prevented from revealing her real name, the press named her Nirbhaya, meaning ‘Fearless’. People poured onto the streets of India in grief and rage, demanding justice. Internationally acclaimed South African playwright and director Yael Farber created a searing new play, featuring testimonials from real survivors of gender violence. Nirbhaya comes to Dublin this July. Totally Dublin spoke to Farber about the piece.
You debuted Nirbhaya at 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, to universal acclaim, and then took the play to India this spring – what was the reception like in India?
It was as we expected: it was profound. I think we assumed that there would be more resistance to the work, just because there’s so much about it that challenges the thinking that might be prevalent in the country. Theatre of course draws a particular kind of audience – but we had just an extraordinary response from the Indian public. You can always tell in a curtain call, when people appreciate work, there’s either a very powerful applause response, or a silence. We often had several seconds of silence before people responded, which we understood in our post-show discussions to have been that the work had penetrated so deeply on some level. In the post-show discussions we had after every performance, the response was overwhelming. In Edinburgh we had the cast stand outside the venue after the show, the audience would file past them, there wasn’t a day that a member of the cast didn’t whisper in someone’s ear their own story. This also happened in India, but in a more public forum, which was quite phenomenal to see.
This year India has faced further misogynistic violence, most recently in Uttar Pradesh. Do you believe that theatre has the responsibility, and ability, to affect political change?
I do, because ultimately the only way we can affect change is to begin to change mindsets; I’m not sure there’s a medium as powerful as theatre that has the capacity and the live transmission to work at that very deep level. Theatre is a ritual, and it’s a ritual that is thousands of years old. I believe theatre is based on some kind of foundation of citizenship, as it was in Ancient Greece, where you went to the theatre to be a better citizen, because you witnessed stories that put you in deeper touch with your own life, your own inner life. I think theatre has the powerful capacity for that. The issue of sexual violence against women and men is really a global crisis. In South Africa we watch theatre that talks about racism, it puts all of us in touch with racism within ourselves. I think a piece that relegates blame to one particular society for carrying the burden of misogyny or racism in one particular culture, and excuses everyone else from the table, has not reached far enough into itself or into the audience. But, if you are creating a work that has that sweep, it becomes a very powerful transmission of the possibility for a change of mind through powerful storytelling. You create a very powerful sense of empathy with the people whose stories you’re witnessing, and that comes down to the gifts of the performers and the way the piece is crafted. Once you’ve achieved those levels you start to tap into people’s deeper stories, empathy becomes a deep association with what you’re witnessing. In this way, I think you start to create a society that demands accountability. The thing about sexual violence is that in some kind of perverse twist of controlling ideologies, the survivors of sexual violence believe themselves at some level to be responsible for having brought it upon themselves, so it gets enfolded in the silence of shame. When one cracks that code of shame open, and reveals it for the lie that it is, it starts to release the demand of accountability on society itself. Governments come into power, and we can often feel helpless in terms of changing legislature or the way people think. It is in fact how we each go home after the performance and start to institute that into our lives, how we listen to our daughters and our sons, how do we receive the various striations of misogyny that come our way every single day. As men and as women, how do we start to create a new level of accountability, and that starts to permeate something wider and deeper that I do believe has the power to change systems.
Though Nirbhaya is set in a specifically Indian context, Ireland also has a history of punishing female sexuality – does Nirbhaya also have something to say about Irish society?
I spent a year in Ireland, I have a close relationship with the country – my mother’s people are from there. I don’t think Ireland, like India, is exceptional in that there are certainly stories that have stayed in the dark for too long. The breaking of recent stories… that extraordinarily wanton waste of life, and cruelty towards children who dared to be born out of wedlock, the laundries… What is it, to send your daughter off to someplace that is going to treat her and her child like a stain that has to be removed? To prioritize the honour of the family or the society in an attempt to eradicate that so-called ‘mistake’, to bring that level of cruelty… What is that, other than honour-based violence? We also know now of the history of child-abuse within the churches -abuse happens everywhere, the question is how much a society will make itself accountable, how much do we excuse people silencing those stories. At what level have we become complicit even if we were not the people who did it? We enable through silence, this is really what we’re trying to address. People who are going to molest and abuse – that’s a reach into the psyche that a psychologist, let alone a theatre production, would struggle to unravel. How we respond as a society is what we can affect with theatre. You can be raised in a context, and I know this as a white South African, where terrible things can be happening around you, and you are taught from a very young age that that is normal, or, something we just don’t talk about. This, I believe, is the true capacity for evil: to teach people to accept benignly what is so malignant in society is to cripple that society from developing any level of accountability.
What sort of reaction do you look for, and hope to see, in audiences?
Triggered by the one incident that became a horrific catalyst, these five women stepped forward on behalf of the community and broke their silences – if you are carrying a story like that, you may break yours. Poorna Jagannathan, the original producer, was abused as a child. She contacted me after the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey to say, ‘I know that my silence made what happened on that bus possible that night’. Each one of us creates a web of silence, we subsume our own stories and our own narratives. So this very simple, but very profound response that we hope to continue to trigger with the work is: break your own silence, and if someone’s silence is being broken to you, if you’re a parent, a teacher, a wife, a brother, and someone is expressing that, how do you respond in a way that says you deserve to be heard? I think revolutions begin like that.
Words: Laura Francis