Kiln Theatre, London – until 30 November 2019
Hema’s is a house of women now. The old grandmother is in bed below the tall screen doors, feeding crows who move shadow-shapes behind them. She is chivvied by a cheerful young maid Ragini; Hema herself tolerates her mother-in-law with gritted teeth. Widowed, respectable and bruised, the mistress of the house is papering over the emotional cracks left by a brutal husband, and living for her son Akshay. He is supposedly making a success of his job in Mumbai, designing violent computer games for the global market.
We see, in a brief and scornfully entertaining scene, that he is an arrogant dilettante, exasperating his colleagues at a bar table and prone to flashes of spoilt-child anger. Which flares at his exit when a bar girl offstage flips him the bird. Bally Gill, every inch the peacock-splendid young alpha male, is horrifyingly perfect in the role: strong-framed, towering over the women, all feral beauty and untrammelled arrogance, a distillation of Indian machismo.
But Akshay has come home. In a hurry, blustering about being mistreated by his employers. And the papers report that a bar girl has been found gang-raped, horribly mutilated, broken-bottled. “They practically vivisected her” says the policeman brutally when he arrives to disconcert the family.
But hey, the cop himself is open to bribery, and to maintaining the middle-class respectability of the family. For until one devastating scene the mother herself flies to defend her “sensitive, respectful” son, at least from the law. Ayesha Dharker is exceptional: subtly conflicted, plunging in and out of angry denial, aware from her years of brutal submission of the imbalance of the sexes but blanking out the awful truth about her son. In one unforgettable midnight scene she joins him the flicker of the X-box and picks up a controller herself, just to see how it would be to have violent power.
The culture looms over them all, a dark wing flickering behind. The old woman is a fount of religious folklore, telling tales of Rama and his subservient Sita, and of a wicked king who bathed in the Ganges until all his sins and crimes burst out through his skin as black crows and flew away, leaving him pure enough for his bride.
Anumpama Chandrasekhar has given us a violently disturbing play, and so it should be. India bleeds at news of rapes – too often unpunished , too often including violent mutilation as male anger rises against women who are educated, making their way, insolently looking them straight in the eye. Our antihero finds this insupportable. Director Indhu Rubasingham spares us none of the rage and horror of it and – this makes you wince – of female complicity in the middle and oldest generations. Hema has suffered, but her attempt not to lose face or to admit enough of it makes her more liberated sister scornfully say she should be grateful “to be a widow not a corpse”.
There are intriguing echoes of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and indeed there are moments when it has a real Ibsen strength and rage, not least in its terrible conclusion. In Ghosts the widow of a sexually wicked man finds her son infected with the syphilis his father left him. But Osvald is an innocent, doomed to madness and death, so there is additional shock in being asked to accept that Akshay too is a victim, inheriting his father’s violence. In a moment of self knowledge he seems to beg for a cure, and prays with his grandmother for redemption. But as he wriggles clear of the law his arrogance returns, and in the denouement a horrid black tide of crow feathers drowns all innocence and hope. .When Aryana Ramkhalawon’s cheeky maid laughs “all men think they are Rama these days” we know that her modern confidence will do her no favours. Brrr.
box office 020 7328 1000 kilntheatre.com to 30 nov