Ibsen returns to London and to India for the second time this year, following A Doll’s House at Lyric Hammersmith. This time, Ghosts is the play which suggests and influences the text of what has become When The Crows Visit, a new play by Anupama Chandrasekhar.
We open the play in a deceptively light-handed manner, with bed-bound Jaya (a slowly monstrous Soni Razdan) running a young girl, Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon, who handles a difficult part with the right gradient of touch) ragged. She could be her grandchild, but we quickly learn she is the hired help.
Also in the house is pragmatic widow Hema (Ayesha Dharker) who has inherited from a husband we quickly learn was abusive, and who misses her golden boy, son Akshay (an outstanding Bally Gill, who inhabits all facets of a character under suspicion of a horrific crime).
Jaya lives part in fantasy-land, part in denial, and sees especially disturbed by the crows who visit the garden – these birds are superly evoked in shadow puppet form by Matt Hutchinson, and by the occasional floating feather until the final, disturbing scene, underscored with its grotesque sense of what is not shown.
This is a hot country, where noise is constant and moral codes are twisted in favour of the patriarchy. In a wordy and perceptive scene between Hema and her more relaxed sister, Kavita (Mariam Haque, who slinks about in loose clothing and angrily defends her daughters as “clever, independent women”), it is clear how much the former loves her son, even to the point of “scapegoating an innocent”.
At first sight, Akshay seems amiable at first, but displays a poor attitude to women: first the executive at his video game company (also played by Haque), then the waitress we do not see, who “gives him the finger” when he yells at her. At home, he seems the dutiful son but exhibits a coldness which grows as his situation becomes more precarious.
The crime in which Akshay is implicated – and there is never any doubt of his guilt – is the rape and beating of a girl who is at first in a coma, and then dies. The details of the crime are not spared, and are shockingly horrific; although I feel Chandrasekhar was right to write in the specifics that make this good Indian boy, from a good family, a monster.
There are moments of comedy – the neighbour who complains of bird mess on his new car (Asif Khan); the video game where the penguin cannot waddle. Even the police inspector (also Khan) has slightly witty moments before he descends into blackmail and self-serving face-saving.
This serves in a way to make three powerful scenes in act two more dynamic: a confrontation between mother and son, an abuse of power between son and maid, and the eventual devastation which is locked from our sight, and that of Hema and Jaya, but not from our ears, or theirs.
The woman who dies is nameless far too long, and her only crime seems to be “looking into the eyes of a man as she walks past”. Her abuser has too much time to gain our sympathy, but I suppose that makes it more horrific when he says participating in the attack “made him feel like a king”.
This is one of those rare plays where applause is held back at the final blackouts, and even, briefly, at cast bows as the audience takes time to process what they have just seen.
When The Crows Visit is on at the Kiln Theatre until 30 November. It is directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Photo credits Mark Douet.