West Yorkshire Playhouse
As the lights come up, the body of a young woman hangs from a tree.
It is a stark opening and a searing image that announces a production which, rightly, given the subject matter, pulls no punches in its telling of the true story of one extraordinary woman’s fight for justice.
That woman is Sampat Pal who has mobilised women in rural India to stand up for their rights and combat the scourge of domestic violence and forced marriage. She is a renowned, yet controversial figure, leader of the infamous Gulabi Gang, a group of 400,000 women, identified by their bright pink saris and armed with sticks they are not afraid to use to defend themselves.
This powerful adaptation of journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book, directed by Suba Das, blazes off the stage, fuelled by Sampat’s righteous rage at the injustices that she sees women around her facing every day.
As the play opens a young woman Sheelu (Ulrika Krishnamurti) is being held in a police cell on a charge of theft. She has defied her father by refusing to marry the man he has chosen for her and running away “with a boy I like”. She is also of a low-caste and has accused a high-caste man of rape – it is her word against his and the ingrained misogyny of the system means it is highly unlikely Sheelu will be believed.
Sampat (Syreeta Kumar) becomes involved in the case, determined to see justice done, and advocates on Sheelu’s behalf, even after the young woman declines her offer of help. Fearless and outspoken, Sampat is a woman who gets things done, but the script, by Purva Naresh, also acknowledges her flaws and contradictions – and her willingness to face violence with violence.
The play offers no easy answers – instead, as with all good theatre, it confronts, challenges and provokes, posing thorny questions to further the debate. And, given the events of the past few weeks, it feels incredibly timely.
Until November 11.