Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Theatre review: Mare Rider

After several failed attempts to have a baby, Selma (Anna Francolini) has had a difficult birth, and is now recovering in Homerton Hospital in Hackney. Spending much of her time asleep or sedated, her dreams are invaded by a nightmare figure from Turkish mythology, Elka the Mare Rider (Kathryn Hunter.) Elka is a millennia-old woman who haunts new mothers if they're not constantly attended, eventually taking the baby's life or - in exceptional circumstances - the mother can bargain with her to take her own. In Mare Rider Leyla Nazli brings a modern woman who's left it quite late to try for a baby, face to face with an ancient creature who doesn't think that much has changed for women since the days her legend was born.

Mehmet Ergen directs this premiere in Arcola Studio 1, which designer Matthew Wright has slightly reconfigured into a wide traverse, the audience either side of the bed where Selma lies helpless as Elka climbs onto her and demands that her life story be heard.

Francolini provides an emotional core to play off the ambiguous supernatural figure attacking her. Hunter's usual extraordinary physicality is put to good use in creating the scarecrow-like otherwordly visitation who says she was once human, and her performance is interestingly ambiguous: Elka is no pure bogeyman, her time with Selma spent getting to know each other, recounting the story of how she became what she is, and finding out about Selma's concerns. But beneath that lies a delight in playing on the woman's insecurities, particularly on feelings of having been deserted by her husband Mark (Matthew Flynn) who is actually being kept from visiting her by hospital rules.

Mare Rider works better as a haunting story of a mother's greatest fear than it does in transposing the mythology into a modern feminist context. Elka's legend seems to be one of women holding each other back (men can repel or enslave if not destroy her, but women are powerless against her) and Nazli touches on an idea of their still being each other's worst enemy in the present day (Hara Yannas' tactless nurse who flirts with Mark while his wife's unconscious gives Elka plenty of ammunition here) but the play also touches on the rights or wrongs of Selma trying for children comparatively late, and of even bringing a child into a difficult world, and in such a short show it feels a bit muddled.

But any intimate performance by Kathryn Hunter is always worth seeing and Mare Rider gives her plenty of material to work with; Richard Williamson's lighting and Ben Walden and Dick Straker's video sequences also help create a sometimes haunting piece that provides a lot of striking imagery.

Mare Rider by Leyla Nazli is booking until the 16th of February at Arcola Studio 1; then continuing on tour to Sweden and Germany.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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