Review: Nirbhaya (Nightwood Theatre)

#2(L to R) Poorna Jagannathan and Priyanka Bose in a scene from Nirbhaya

Nirbhaya by Nightwood Theatre explores rape and sexual assault in India, on stage in Toronto

The 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey horrified international news and led to large protests in the capital of India; the fury opened up space for women to speak their truth about sexual and physical assault, and one valuable contribution to this conversation is Yaël Farber’s play Nirbhaya, currently produced by Nightwood Theatre. It tells Pandey’s story, but also true stories from the lives of the performers.

The actors are seated in the audience as you enter, which caused me a little mental jolt along the lines of “That woman’s got bare feet! Oh wait, she must be an actor.” It made me very conscious of my role as an audience member (and reviewer) — that I was there to witness.

As the lights went down and smoke filtered through the air, a high clear voice rose in haunting song (there is liberal use of a smoke machine and also incense, so do bring cough drops or whatever else you need if such things affect you). This voice comes from Japjit Kaur, dressed in flowing layers of white, who goes on to play Pandey both in the recreation of her assault and death but also as a benevolent ghost, an apparition I took to be the Spirit of All Assaulted Women, who helps the women transition between their tales.

We are often told not to go out alone at night because that is when and how we will get raped. We know this is not true. Pandey was with a male friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, who was badly beaten during the attack. Awindra, as well as all the other men in the show — rapists and brutes, but also Awindra, and a sweet little brother, and a young son — are played by Ankur Vikal. He changes roles in a split second, emanating empathy one moment and malevolence the next. I have the feeling that he must be an exemplary man for these women to trust him to enact their real-life abuse in scenes with themselves, with their bodies.

Poorna Jagannathan, one of the original producers, was raped as a child of nine. Sneha Jawale was beaten daily by her husband, burned with kerosene, her child stolen. Priyanka Bose was raped by multiple men and boys throughout her childhood and adolescence. Rukhsar Kabir was beaten by her father, then married off to a man who raped her and made her choose which of her children would remain in her life. And then there is Pamela Mala Sinha, whose story I have heard before in the astounding play Crash: hearing it a second time, in a shortened form, made it no less powerful.

All of these narratives are emotionally devastating, profound, and all too common. Whether it’s a stranger, a relative or a husband, whether it’s in India or Pakistan or here in Canada, it’s important to know these atrocities are real and to believe the women who speak of them.

The only thing I didn’t like was that the performers who weren’t the featured in the upcoming scene strode around the stage during the transition. To me this retroactively lessened the impact of the opening, when they bustled around to portray the crowdedness of Delhi, and detracted from the transition itself, which was usually a simple and lovely exchange of fabric from Pandey to the performer in question.

The set is uncomplicated and effective. Two rows of seats on stage right portray the bus where the Pandey assault took place, and also general buses, crowded and full of groping hands on any given day. Hanging frames against the back wall are set swinging during scenes of chaos.

The full visual knockout is saved for the end — along with a potent mix of song, sound, action and ritual that evoked a strong emotional response from the audience, if my ears (and my own eyes) are any judge. It’s a long ending, with many phases; it’s worth every minute.


Photo of Poorna Jagannathan and Priyanka Bose by William Burdett-Coutts