When The Crows Visit is an unrelentingly violent account of a mother, Hema, trying to protect her son, Akshay, after he commits a violent sexist act against a woman he barely knows. It is an investigation into misogyny and patriarchy and draws heavily on Ibsen’s Ghosts, with a modern-day twist. Some critics are calling for more Ibsen plays to be set in India after seeing this show (as if India needs further colonising) but they have missed the point. Yes, the play draws on similar themes to those present in Ghosts, and uses its structure as a guide to include discussions around the 2012 Delhi gang rape of a young woman and to investigate why society is so anxious to turn a blind eye to such horrific crimes. But the play is also a response to a global problem. Playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar has taken Ibsen’s classic to show how it needs to go beyond dissecting middle-class hypocrisies and get to the root of what allows them in the first place. She reveals the corrupt bureaucracies – here represented by Asif Khan’s Inspector who receives money from Hema for protecting Akshay – that attempt to hide rape culture and manipulate outcomes to advantage men. These are not issues of India alone.
This play takes on an ambitious task, in attempting to understand what social scientist and author Deepa Narayan terms as ‘cultural jiu jitsu’ in the program notes – the thousands of ways society has taught women that their main duty is to be loyal to men. Perhaps it is one that could have done with being longer to unpick the moral complexities the women, who hold the stage here, find themselves in.
The women present themselves as flippant, cheery, witty and cutting; Soni Razdan as the aggrieved grandmother Jaya is in fine form. But they can never escape the nagging feeling that as women, they suffer a lack of empowerment and agency as females in a society where it is assumed that they exist in a state of inferiority. Jaya’s daughter-in-law Hema (Ayesha Dharker), ex-wife of the lost husband and now owner of his house, haggles with Jaya, who bemoans her grandson’s lack of respect for her son. They peck at each other remorselessly, chopping bits out of each other, like the avenging crows who hang around fluttering outside like extras in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hema and Jaya can’t stop getting at each other, yet the long-gone husband is a big elephant in the room and the soon-to-be-returning son, Akshay, who’s running from failure as a games designer, is an even bigger one.
Chandrasekhar transposes Ibsen’s themes radically, making them more overt. She shines a crude light onto this jiu jitsu which imprisons women so successfully. Set designer Richard Kent has chosen a handsome deep sea green room with tall windows which never seem to let in the light. Perhaps it is also why director Indhu Rubasingham chooses to have the women with their backs to it most of the time. It acts both as a prison– invalid Jaya and recluse Hema rarely escape it, though Aryana Ramkhalawon’s maid Ragini does–and as a haven against the truth of the outside world they don’t wish to acknowledge.
Akshay too is reluctant to return to it, Bally Gill peering in through the windows and creeping back from his failed life in the city, but with nowhere else to go. Yet, as with his father’s unspoken and undescribed abuse, all the violence and its motivations are always offstage. The exits are positioned at the back of the stage in Kent’s set design, particularly in the cafe/bistro where Akshay is prompted into an angry rage by his fellow employees and a waitress. When Akshay yells about what he sees as the waitresses’ disrespectful behaviour, he does so in the bowels of the structure; we don’t see the violence which comes out of it to “teach her a lesson”, only hear it or have it reported. Whilst Paul G Raymond’s ill-fated David and Mariam Haque’s Uma can leave the cafe after this outburst, Akshay is drawn to stay by some fatalistic desire or anger at having his manly authority so undermined. It’s a sign that some parts of society can move on, but people like Akshay, the cargo of patriarchy’s and misogyny’s shipwreck, are dumped on a shoreline somewhere like unwanted goods, but whose toxic legacy will take decades of high tides to wash away and dilute.
It is this internalising of the patriarchal and misogynistic regimes, which Akshay and Jaya and Hema can’t claw out of themselves, that provides the interest for the play and is the real story. It’s also so internalised that even going-places gaming protege Uma is not free. She may sit jauntily on a bar stool in her modern outfit, but it feels like her head is being controlled by other hands. She can’t really resist Akshay’s sexism; fear keeps her mouth shut. Chandrasekhar also alludes to how India’s caste system plays its part; Ragini is horrifically punished for playing society’s game as Regina does in Ghosts. It is this that pushes Akshay further into his hatred of women. He can’t bear the fact that Ragini, of a lower class, and supposedly a victim of an unfair system, might profit through society’s double-dealing to “get on”. The cultural jiu jitsu which forced his mother to let his father commit acts of abuse and sully him forever is now making fools of everyone; Ragini muddies Askshay’s sense of who the victors and victims can be and he does not like it.
Of course, the women are the big victims here–India is the world’s most dangerous country for women– and it is a testament to Dharker and Razdan’s performances, in particular, in an underdeveloped script that we can see them as both victims and the makers of their fates too: Hema refuses to see who her son is; Jaya fears what her grandson is, but believes nothing can be changed. Yet, it is very hard to have empathy for the characters. The play doesn’t make space for pauses where characters exchange little intimacies, or give a sense of some sort of normality before the tragedy took hold of the household. As a result, the narrative charges at a rate that’s too fast and offers, as some critics have commented, little room for hope.
Whilst I think the play does actually offer hope, I take issue with anyone who thinks that any play about violent misogyny should somehow have some sort of moral obligation to provide hope. Perhaps demanding hope is a sign of Western privilege, one that comes from not really understanding the fear that such worlds elicit from women, or the moral complexities that arise for women who are trapped living with violently abusive men. Their lack of rights stifles their ability to ask for something better. But there is still not enough of an attempt here to explore exactly why, rather than how, this society allows women to have fewer rights than men.
When The Crows Visit is on at the Kiln Theatre till 30th November. More info here.