Yael Farber: “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional”

An interview with the director of <em>Nirbhaya</em>, a new play about the Delhi rape case that shocked the world.

I was in Barcelona when I heard Jyoti had died. I didn’t know her name then but I knew she was a young woman like myself and my friends, and that her death highlighted a need for change.

On 16 December Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in Delhi with a male friend, Awindra Pandey. What happened next is etched into public consciousness. The driver and his five companions beat Awindra unconscious then took turns to rape Jyoti on the floor of the bus as it circled the streets. When she fought back they raped her with an iron rod which destroyed 90 per cent of her intestine. They then threw the couple from the bus and attempted to drive over them, before disappearing into the Delhi night.

The news was broadcast and people prayed for Jyoti’s recovery. Not knowing her name they lit candles for a girl they called Nirbhaya, the Marathi word for Fearless. Nirbhaya has now become a familiar name for a young woman who fought to live, but who eventually died, a beautiful, intelligent girl who has in death become a potent symbol for change.

When I heard that writer and director Yael Farber, moved by the incident, was creating a play around it, I felt this was to be an important production and wanted to hear more about the ideas behind it, so I met with Farber in a small Edinburgh cafe to discuss her show.

After seeing Nirbhaya I am somewhat in awe of her. I left the auditorium feeling completely drained yet absolutely alive. Jyoti’s story is a framing device; in between Jyoti boarding the bus and getting attacked five other women tell their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The testimonies glisten, these women hold nothing back.

Although Farber felt strongly about the case the idea to create the play originated from one of the actors. “There’s an actress in Mumbai who was one of the performers, Poorna Jagannathan. She contacted me on Facebook because she had seen my work and said ‘Women are ready to speak here, will you come and make it work?’ and of course that was an amazing invitation and I said yes.

“It was very quick to do the work for this year but we just felt this time next year this story would have passed back into the tide of indifference. This young woman died and if her life were not to be in vain we have to carry forward what it evoked on the streets.“

Farber is keen to see attitudes towards women change, and she hopes Nirbhaya will be part of a larger process of breaking the silence. “We didn’t want to just tell the story about Jyoti because to do that is to suggest it’s an anomaly in some way. What we wanted to do was show that this sits inside a larger frame, a wider tapestry of an endemic violence against women. We felt that by bringing personal testimony it provokes this civic gesture which

is that these five women get up every day and break their silence in front of witnesses as a way of saying ‘this is the only way forward, if we begin to speak, we begin to take apart this idea that we should carry the shame’ because we live in silence when there is a currency of shame and when you start to speak you are.”

I ask Farber about the creation of Nirbhaya and she tells me how closely she worked with the actors . “It’s testimonial theatre which is different to verbatim [in that] it requires the engagement of a playwright, and that was my role. I gathered their testimonies and did a lot of research and interviews and group sessions with them but then I, I would go away and craft and find the words and trajectory to condense it, each piece could only be possibly ten minutes.”

Something I found poignant in Nirbhaya was a child’s yellow dress which was handed to Poorna by Japjit Kaur, playing Jyoti. “Theatre is about evoking memory, thoughts, sensuous responses to things and sensory responses to things,” says Farber. “If she just told us she was a child and [the abuse] happened then we will hear it but if we see a little yellow dress we will understand it and we will remember what it was like, to wear your favourite yellow dress and you know just to evoke that image inside us because we want to bring the audience on a journey with us. With each story Jyoti hands [the actor] their object, in other words saying ‘remember yourself, speak about this, tell your story, bring your testimony.’”

I mention the recent case of a thirteen-year-old abuse victim being labelled ‘predatory’. Farber frowns and shakes her head. “Extraordinary, but yet it’s appalling but not extraordinary, this kind of stuff happens all the time and I, think across the world in different ways, we, we create some kind of diversion from these, and we have to find ways to break the silence.”

It is apparent in Nirbhaya that as well as seeing the injustice in the world (she has previously written about apartheid) Farber also sees beauty – the performers speak about Delhi as ‘a city where god runs in the wires’ and the way Farber speaks has a flow and rhythm akin to poetry.

“There’s such brutality and difficulty, but there’s such beauty as well,” she says. “The sacred and the profane live alongside each other, so inside all that difficulty and pain, there is immense, very profound sense of spirituality and divinity.”

Was it not difficult for her, though, writing about such an intense and horrible subject matter?

“I find this kind of work very fulfilling, so for me difficulty is part of it. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotional but I’m grateful for those things,” she says. “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s my work and it’s where I draw my purpose from. For me, difficulty is part of all the work I do. I trust if something is difficult because it’s usually worth it.”

A performance of Nirbhaya. Photo: William Burdett-Coutts
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The Lure of Greatness: Anthony Barnettt's punk polemic grasps the magnitude of Brexit and Trump

Despite its idiosyncrasies we need more books like it.

If the early hours of 24 June and 9 November 2016 sit in your memory as times of racing thoughts and lurching anxiety, you will probably agree with the basic thesis of this book as a matter of instinct. “Something irreversible has happened, which people feel in their bones,” writes Anthony Barnett. “It is the end of an era, a truly historic moment.”

Britain is embroiled in the fiasco of its exit from the EU; the US is in the midst of a comparably chaotic reinvention, authored by an overgrown child who happens to be the president. But thus far, beyond a mountain of electoral analysis and the kind of books that focus exclusively on high politics and court intrigue, it often feels like the deep significance of what has happened has yet to sink in. Barnett, by contrast, is in no doubt: 2016 was a year of revolution, as replete with importance as 1968, and its events were expressions of a set of seismic crises – of the state, the economy and politics on both the left and the right.

As its response to the Brexit vote showed, British political commentary is never terribly comfortable with this kind of stuff. A year on from the referendum, the pre-eminent work of non-fiction about the saga remains All Out War, by the Westminster-centric Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman, while bigger thoughts about the national condition have seemingly been left to writers of novels (witness Ali Smith’s brilliant Autumn, or Anthony Cartwright’s Brexit story The Cut).

In that context, there is no little symbolism in how the writing of The Lure of Greatness was enabled not by a mainstream publisher but by the crowd-funding platform Unbound, and financed by a great array of benefactors listed at the back. From its amateurish graphics (the title is written on the cover as “The Lure of Great Ness”, which rather suggests a tribute to an obscure Scottish village) to the sense of a text written at a furious pace with precious little editing, the whole thing feels like a kind of punk polemic, much less concerned with the standard rules of political writing than the need to respond to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments.

This is mostly a good thing. A one-time director of the constitutional reform campaign Charter 88 and the co-founder of the online platform openDemocracy, Barnett is a veteran of the kind of maverick politics that exists to push beyond useless orthodoxies and is usually built on a profound sense of history. One of his topics is the lack of those qualities in a caste of politicians he calls the “CBCs” – it stands for Clinton (Bill), Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron and Clinton (Hillary) – and the dire style of politics that Trump and Brexit have probably rendered extinct. Here, his paradigmatic story is of the 84 slogans invented by people working for Hillary Clinton – “Rise up”, “Move up”, “Family first”, “A new bargain we can count on”, the flatly weird “Next begins with you” – before they settled on “Stronger together”, a close relative of the Remain campaign’s equally awful “Stronger in”. Such, he says, was an approach that “regarded sincerity, independence, principle… and believing what you say as positively dangerous”.

All of this comes into even sharper focus in his treatment of David Cameron, an elegant exercise in damnation that has echoes of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s searing 2007 monograph Yo, Blair!. One of the two chapters in question is titled “Words Pop Out of His Mouth”. Cameron, Barnett writes, was “one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose”.

Worse still, he “took the capacity for self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch of rootlessness, and distilled the era’s deceitful spirit of government to perfection”. He said he had “no plans” to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance or raise VAT and then did both; he pledged not to means-test child benefit and then made precisely that change; and though his form of words was conveniently vague, he even said he would not allow any building on the green belt. In that sense, the referendum and its outcome were Cameron’s doing not just in the sense that he was daft enough to call the vote but that his casual deceptions were part of what people were rebelling against.

Most of the book is focused on Britain and, under the heading “Brexitannia”, the text moves beyond the rituals and personalities of politics into deeper themes: “the market-driven form taken by globalisation whose name is neoliberalism”, the serial failures of the EU (about which Barnett is bracingly honest) and hard questions about the supposedly United Kingdom. Clearly, the identities of Wales and Scotland have been renewed by devolution – and, in the latter case, by a party of the centre left that confidently speaks to people’s sense of belonging. Meanwhile, England has continued to be subsumed under the decaying idea of Britain and bossed around by the UK’s essentially 19th-century institutions, leaving it in dysfunctional limbo.

“English people… are losing their belief in Westminster and its self-important debates,” writes Barnett. “It is no longer funny that MPs fiddle their expenses. The Lords is ridiculous… Hideous over-centralisation makes local government pitiful. The result is a displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them… on to Brussels.” He rightly locates Brexit in what he calls “England-without-London” and bemoans the reluctance of people on the left – of all persuasions – to channel its feelings of powerlessness and resentment.

This leads on to a closing section written before this year’s general election, in which Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are largely presumed to be locked into decline. Some of the arguments ring true (he calls Corbyn a merchant of “regressive radicalism”, which is spot on), but Barnett’s trenchant tone inevitably sounds a dissonant note. Elsewhere, the uneven pace and sheer range of subjects can be a bit much, and he makes the odd mistake, as with the claim that Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, is a “village”, when it’s actually the county town – the kind of metropolitan slip-up that one might associate with his loathed CBCs. But for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause. Precisely because of its idiosyncrasies, this is a very good book, and in times like these, we need more like it.

The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump
Anthony Barnett
Unbound, 416pp, £8.99

John Harris writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear