Some theatres present predictable plays. We all know who they are if we’re in Ireland. In Dublin, there’s some relief, usually from the Project or the Civic, or Ballymun Axis. It’s hard for the big guys receiving big Arts Council grants to pull away from the bums-on-seats successes that draw in the people who know just what they like especially if it’s not too controversial.
Then along comes the Pavillion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire with the really powerful play “Nirbhaya” (running till August 2nd), a seven-hander which focuses on gender violence in India, specifically on the brutalisation and gang rape of a young New Delhi woman on a bus during December 2012. The woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya in the days and weeks before her death in hospital, galvanised thinking on gender violence in India, and although the violence continues, there is a strong movement seeking to bring reform of many kinds.
This play is entirely absorbing. It never becomes didactic or doctrinaire or rhetorical. Through intelligent use of floor space and props the audience is exposed to six different narratives of violence through six different women. The whole is framed with Nirbhaya’s rape, in that the assault is partly revealed quite early on, but then halts suddenly as in a movie still, only to carry on to other stories. Yet these are not ‘stories’ in which each actor stands and tells. They stories depict, reveal, and what is not depicted in the action is revealed imaginatively for the audience, so that we can ‘see’ how kerosene was flung in the face of one woman, and we can ‘see’ how a little girl of 9 was raped by an uncle and then later by many more men. But it is the rape of Nirbhaya on which the whole action pivots and to which the play eventually returns in considerable visual detail. It’s hard to watch, but it’s entirely credible and profoundly disturbing. Although visually hard to stomach this was still mesmerising as a piece of theatre. The scene on the bus (eight chairs propped in twos, a few metal bars for the bars on the bus) shocks, but not because of because of easily drawn sensationalism, so much as from the sense that this is how it can be for some women, and a transforming belief that really, half the time, most of us are half asleep even when we think we’re aware of gender violence.
The actor playing this part also functions as a spiritual presence throughout. We can interpret this as Nirbhaya’s sprit post-death, or we can see her as a watcher, an observer who is hearing out the pain and exposure of the other women’s stories. Sometimes she sings softly, in a lament. At other times she moves gracefully among the women, watching. After Nirbhaya’s death, a tense and rapt silence deepened within the audience as we watched the still body washed down, as with any death, then wrapped tenderly in white cloth before being born to her eventual physical annihilation through ritual fire (one assumes).
It’s the kind of play that, in an ideal world, I’d love to see going on in the Abbey or the Gate. Fat chance of that obviously, and no harm to either theatre, but really, if theatre’s function is also to create a sense of alienation, or horror without catharsis, then this play is the business and one of some importance. I can’t recall when I last saw a play that made me think hard about anything. I loved the Abbey’s production of Friel’s “Aristocrats”, but I came out of it having ‘enjoyed’ an evening, I came out of if untransformed.
I think theatre should transform. I think all art should transform for that matter. But so often it doesn’t. Finally, here are a few statistics from Action Aid:
1. According to UN Women, in Sao Paolo Brazil, a woman is assaulted every fifteen seconds.
2. In one survey from Cambodia 8% of all men reported that they had raped a woman or girl who was not their partner and 5% of all men reported that they had participated in gang rape. (Note: conversely this means 92% and 95% did neither. I always watch the way statistics are presented, but even so, these figures are significant enough and amount to a lot of raping).
3. In Bangladesh over 60% of women interviewed by ActionAid said they would not advise female friends to go to the police if attacked.
4. One third of the world’s overall population now live in the poorest urban areas such as slums, townships and illegal settlements.
And just for the record, we’re not living in rape-free heaven here in Ireland either. Or anywhere in Western Europe.