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When The Crows Visit at The Kiln Theatre | Review

Ayesha Dharker (Hema), Bally Gill (Akshay) Photo by Mark Douet.
Ayesha Dharker (Hema), Bally Gill (Akshay) Photo by Mark Douet.

A strong, imagistic play, Anupama Chandraksekhar’s When the Crows Visit is a study in tragic construction that will leave you pondering its themes long after the final black-out. Set in modern-day India and structured on the bones of Ibsen’s 1881 Ghosts, this familial and social drama takes us to a world in which everyone is haunted by the limiting narratives of patriarchy – repeated and internalised across the generations – that result in a state of self-tyranny.

The Kiln Theatre’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, explains that her collaboration with Chandraksekhar emerged from discussions she had with the playwright following the horrifying gang rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh, the 23-year-old student who was mercilessly attacked on a Delhi bus in 2012. Reports of the relentless savagery she endured sparked cries of outrage in India and around the world but, seven years later, have not proved a turning-point towards reduction of sexual violence in the subcontinent or elsewhere. The true story’s influence is described in the production’s programme and thus serves as a sort of ghost itself: giving the opening scene a sense of suspense and foreboding as three women of three generations and two social classes interact in a manner that at first seems like standard semi-comic theatrical business.

The play opens with bed-ridden and grumbling grandmother, Jaya (Soni Razdan), and her youthful nurse, Ragini, played by Aryana Ramkhalawon (dressed in a physiotherapist-style uniform that one would imagine the late Ms Singh would have worn with patients) engaging in humorous, but barbed, chit-chat that – whether you’ve read the programme notes or not – pricks curiosity as to what the subtext might be. We learn we are in a house of wealth and privilege where the servant class must suffer regular indignities with grace and where male children command maternal obsession to the point of idolisation.

Like Ibsen’s Ghosts, we encounter the widow of a powerful man, Hema (Ayesha Dharker), and see she was manipulated into staying in an unhappy marriage. Also like the Norwegian drama, there is heavy foreboding that the son and heir, Akshay (Bally Gill), has inherited something shameful from the father. However, unlike Ghosts, Hema is persuaded to remain in the destructive marriage not because of clergy’s insistence a ‘good wife’ must ‘reform’ the errant husband. Chandraksekhar goes for something far more blistering in her backstory and ensuing drama: a multi-generational toxic blend of complicity, denial and internalised mythology that has led the family to adopt a near-automatic Madonna/whore reflex, even despite cognitively knowing better. The result is powerful, thought-provoking and suspenseful.

Rubasingham embraces theatricality with grandeur but not gimmick. The staging is adroit: opening with a lofty but murky space to convey the moneyed home Hema shares with her mother-in-law, Jaya, and the old lady’s nurse, Ragini. The sense of past secrets and future brutality fester in sultry heat, thickened with shadows cast by noir-style ceiling fans and a soundscape of cicadas that evoke a mood almost reminiscent of Tennessee Williams in its unapologetically high-drama feel.

The play pulses with an ambitious expressive energy whilst following a conventional structure that successfully and credibly engages. Rubasingham has assembled a creative power-quartet with designer Richard Kent demonstrating impressive functionality, versatility and multiple world-building through his set; Oliver Fenwick offering far more than just illumination with a lighting design that is central to much of the play’s literal and metaphorical moments and Ben and Max Ringham providing a score and sound design that adds multiple layers of drama and mysticism.

The lead character, Hema, is also the star of the show thanks to Ayesha Dharker’s multi-faceted performance. Not immediately sympathetic, her character’s development takes the audience on a suspenseful moral ride punctuated with outrage, compassion, disgust and fear. Aryana Ramkhalawon as Ragini reveals delightful versatility; particularly in the second act when she shows her off-duty self and reveals the internal world of a young woman enraptured by dreams before menacing and claustrophobic power-structures re-confine her.

With three important lead female characters plus key story points propelled through vivid and fully-drawn, but short, interactions with Akshay’s work colleague and Hema’s sister (both played by Mariam Haque), Chandrasekhar has triumphed in showing us diverse and fully-fledged women; each with their individual qualities and experiences whilst also significant to the core story. When we meet senior games developer, David (Paul G Raymond), talking shop with Akshay and Uma in a Mumbai bar, we also observe range and nuance in these two male characters. Bally Gill’s Akshay initially comes across as a likable and eager young man but we get subtle notes of the son’s need for approval and belonging alongside hints of his impulsivity and entitlement.

Chandrasekhar artfully juxtaposes modern natter about the story arcs of video games with Jaya’s devotion to ancient Hindu epics to weave a rich tapestry of the invisible forces that guide repeating cycles of enabled cruelty and oppression. The character of David speaks eloquently for the audience in asking ‘why?’ at a key moment of tragedy. However, when Chandrasekhar answers this question, she does so by giving the villain a speech in naturalistic dialogue that feels too self-aware to be spoken directly by the character. A vital second act moment and turning-point rings just a little too ‘telling’ over ‘showing’ and I suspect the actor isn’t quite able to hit it home, in part, because the explanation is too intellectualised rather than demonstrating the propelling psychology. I am reminded again of Williams; in this case: A Streetcar Named Desire and how Stanley Kowalski is never forced to confront or explain his monstrous deeds but he indirectly justifies them before-the-fact.

Rubasingham describes When the Crows Visit as a ‘political drama’ but such a remark can be misleading. Chandrasekhar has created a riveting play drawing on some of the finest dramatic traditions in both the Western and Eastern cannon. Whilst both gendered and economic power structures are central to this tragedy, this is a story about what motivates people in their defining moments. Wonderfully dramatic and potent, I am reminded far more of the great theatrical storytellers than any topical broadside. Moving, thrilling and important, if you appreciate intense and excellent drama, make sure to visit The Kiln before 30th November.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

…and all the sins of his father and his forefathers came out of his body, through the pores of his skin, in the form of crows.

When a son returns home after being accused of a violent crime, a mother is forced to confront the ghosts of her past when the crows visit.

Inspired by true events in modern-day India, Anupama Chandrasekhar explores the themes of Ibsen’s Ghosts and the cyclical nature of oppression in a dark and thrilling world premiere.

Kiln Theatre presents
by Anupama Chandrasekhar


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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