Kiln Theatre, London – until 30 November 2019
Ibsen’s Ghosts strips 19th century culture bare, revealing the sickness and hypocrisy hidden beneath moralistic bombast. In When the Crows Visit Anupama Chandrasekhar has cleverly, and bravely, reworked the most shocking of 19th century drama’s exposés to shine a harsh light on contemporary Indian culture.
A apparently successful family, their son a software star in Mumbai, hold everything together through a fierce devotion to maintaining appearances. This means ignoring the violence carried out against women, both inside and outside the family, by successive generations of men.
They provide a microcosm of India today, each character a rethinking of a stereotype – the mother-in-law, the self-sacrificing mother, the son on a pedestal, the immoral, childless sister, and the policeman looking for backhanders. With the appalling gang rapes of recent years hovering over the play, the representation of men as entitled, self-centred, and amoral is chilling.
Bally Gill gives a fine performance as the cherished son Akshay, his apparent success concealing his ability, inherited from his late father, to turn on any woman who challenges the status he assumes is his by right. He is convinced their behaviour means they deserve what’s coming to them. Asif Khan’s corrupt, arrogant policeman is part of the same toxic continuum, able to make anything disappear for the right price while using his authority to browbeat the women he forces to pay.
However, it is the women of the play who are the real focus, and far from blameless. Soni Razdan puts in an excellent performance as the gleefully manipulative grandmother. Her old woman’s games and tricks are very funny, but her absolute focus on protecting the men in her life is horrifying. She fought for her son, who beat her daughter-in-law repeatedly, and now she fights for her grandson Akshay, who she enables and even encourages to go the same way.
Ayesha Dharker, as Akshay’s mother Hema is the still centre of the play, refusing to acknowledge her struggle to cope with the past as the crows – embodiments of the dead – circle outside her window. Chandrasekhar does not take a redemptive route, but shows her repeating the mistakes of the past with grim consequences. Her play spares no-one in its determination to confront India with its dark present.
The combination of brutal misogyny, blatant corruption, social division, and obsession with myth is shown up in all its disturbing reality. Her writing confronts difficult truths, but it does so by creating entirely convincing characters. When The Crows Visit is a powerful new play, and Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a notable success for the Kiln Theatre.