19 July 2013

Nirbhaya at Riverside Studios (mixed)

I chose to see Nirbhaya just because it was on at the Riverside on a Friday night and that is a nice routine to get in to. And it was hot enough to justify an ice cream on the terrace beforehand.

This was the first performance of Nirbhaya as part of a short pre-Edinburgh run where the official premier  will be given.

Obviously I knew that it was about the violent sexual assault on a bus in Delhi last year and so was not going to be a light evening. What I had no idea of was what form it would take, and having seen it, I am still not sure.

The main thread of the play was the story of the young woman who became known as Nirbhaya. This was told as a direct narrative with the actors speaking directly to the audience. I felt that this was mostly unnecessary as either we knew the story or it was played out before us.

Supplementing the main story we heard the tales of several other Indian women who had suffered abuse in some way and got no sympathy for doing so, usually the opposite. Again it was not clear why this was necessary or why we had to hear quite so many stories, two or three would have been sufficient to make the point.

We also saw something of the society that spawned the incident, e.g. the constant groping on Delhi buses, and of the aftermath of the incident when it became a national and then an international story.

There was anger in the play but I felt that it was unfocused and a little obvious. It may be that this unfocused rage was deliberate and was an attempt to describe the impact of the incident but the result was that we got the expected outrage but no insight.

I also felt that it fell into the common trap of focusing on the women as victims. A recent TED Talk explained that transitioning from "Jack beats Mary" to "Mary is beaten by Jack" to "Mary is beaten" to "Mary is a battered woman" takes Jack out of the picture and that is where the problem lies.

The final flaw in the play came at the end, or rather the succession of false endings that made the closing section of The Return of the King seem hurried.

Nirbhaya has lots of good points and it was an enthralling hour and a half that while it would be hard to call it entertaining in the usual sense because of the subject matter, it was certainly captivating. Among the ninety minutes there is a reasonable sixty minute play waiting to get out.

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