Interview: Yael Farber breaks the shame barrier

The creator of the harrowing hit Mies Julie explains why she had no choice but to base her next play on the deadly gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey

It’s been some year for Yael Farber. Twelve months ago, the South African playwright and director was fretting over Mies Julie, her reworking of the Strindberg play set in a post-apartheid country where racial and sexual tensions still prevail. She was uncertain if it would strike a chord with audiences on the Edinburgh Fringe and feared the worst.

“I had no idea at this point of the year,” she says. “Three or four performances in we were still struggling to make the piece work in the venue. Slowly, we ironed different details out and the press started to arrive as we were starting to pull it together. Until that moment, I actually thought we were going to do quite badly.”

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In fact, Mies Julie was the big theatre hit of 2012, picking up five-star reviews, winning a Scotsman Fringe First and receiving invitations to play everywhere from New York to Finland. It is still on tour, with dates scheduled in Canada, Hong Kong and Austria.

To capitalise on such success, the cautious thing to do would have been to return to Edinburgh with some tried-and-tested production from South Africa, or perhaps Montreal where Farber is now living. The Fringe, however, is no place for caution. Not only is Nirbhaya a completely new show, but this time last year the terrible event that inspired it had not even taken place.

The play came about after Mumbai-based actor Poorna Jagannathan read Facebook comments Farber had made in the wake of the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. Pandey was the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was attacked by six men after she boarded a bus in Munirka, south-west Delhi, on the night of 16 December 2012. So horrific were her injuries that she died 13 days later, fuelling further the international outcry.

Jagannathan knew of Farber’s experience scripting testimonial theatre, plays in which the true-life stories of the performers are turned into polished pieces of drama. The actor sensed that the anger aroused by Pandey’s ordeal had created an opportunity. For the first time, women were speaking about things that had happened to them at the hands of men. It seemed to Jagannathan that the victims of sexual violence were ready to make their voices heard more widely. Her hunch was that Farber would be just the woman to help them do it. She invited her to India.

“We didn’t know each other at all, but we knew our responses were both very deep,” says Farber, who also won a Fringe First in 2000 for Woman In Waiting and a Herald Angel in 2003 for Amajuba. “Even with the best consciousness about sexual violence, you do develop a shell of protectiveness and numbness around the statistics. There’s something about what happened to that young woman that just perforated that. The details bruise you and you walk around feeling it all day.”

To make an artistic response seemed to be a matter of urgency. That’s why, only seven months after Pandey’s death, Nirbhaya is premiering on the Fringe. “Strategically, there are so many other projects I could have done, but when something like this comes along, you just have to put all vanity, all strategy aside. My feeling is, this time next year, we will have developed a strong reflex against what happened. My question is always, ‘What will it take the next time?’ It’s a bit like the shooting of those kids in America. You think, ‘For sure now, they’ll get it about guns.’ And when they don’t, you ask yourself what will it take to break the sound barrier next time? The moment for that case is now. Already, indifference is rising, so there just didn’t seem to be a choice.”

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Nirbhaya uses Pandey’s rape as a way of contextualising the true stories of five of the seven performers. One of the women was a “dowry bride” whose husband and family tried to kill her. She bears the scars on her face of where she was burned. None of the others had previously spoken about their experiences. By coming forward with their testimonies of sexual violence, they hope to end the feelings of shame that many such women feel.

It is, of course, charged material and Farber is sensitive to the ethical questions raised by putting it on the stage. “I absolutely expected the Indian press to ask why I, as an outsider, was coming in there and making a comment on a society,” she says. “It’s such a delicate thing to finesse. After the death of the young woman, there was definitely a neo-colonial response from people in the western countries. In societies that consider themselves more enlightened in terms of misogyny and patriarchy there is a reflex where we locate sexual violence elsewhere. So a story like this can become dubious because you can pour all the subtext of your own society into ‘what Indian men do to their women’.”

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It would have been understandable if people in India suspected Farber of being some kind of patronising missionary determined to save them from themselves. As a white woman who has created a lot of testimonial theatre about apartheid, she is very familiar with the charge of exploitation and accepts that people have valid concerns. Putting real survivors on stage in front of a paying audience could be seen as, in her own words, “grief porn”. The challenge, she says, is to make the audience witnesses rather than voyeurs. For all the potential pitfalls, however, she has found people in India to be surprisingly receptive. “There’s no sense of questioning, but more, ‘Thank God somebody’s doing this.’”

In addition to the pressures of creating a show in six weeks (overnight writing sessions and all), Farber has had to cope with the distressing nature of the women’s stories. This, though, has not been as traumatic as you would expect. “The piece is soaked in pain and tragedy, and it’s their lives,” she says. “But if you’re talking about how you survived sexual abuse in your home because your brother, every time it happened, just looked at you and said, ‘I know that that’s happening to you,’ that story can be about the love for your brother. Every one of those women in that room at some point has had that, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to be in the room. We focus a lot on that. Also the women are extraordinary, vibrant, funny human beings and we have to bring that to this work.”

It is the act of reclaiming their stories for themselves that transforms Nirbhaya from a statement of the obvious (sexual violence is bad) to something with political weight. “We know it’s bad, but where does the guilt or the shame reside?” she says. “Where is silence encouraged so that the fact gets erased? Whose honour has been broken? Who has brought shame upon themselves? Yes, sexual violence is bad, but there is an intrinsic shame that comes with it across societies. It’s complex to be a survivor of sexual violence because there are all kinds of conflicting emotions that are encouraged by patriarchies. It is a very profound way of controlling. By speaking, the women take a distance from culpability.”

Twitter: @MarkFFisher

• Nirbhaya, Assembly Hall, Thursday until 26 August.