Mare Rider – review

Mare Rider

Anna Francolini and Kathryn Hunter in Mare Rider. Photograph: Simon Annand

A woman dressed in white is lying on a pristine hospital bed, and something is wrong. We know this because at the foot of her bed, half-hidden in the shadows, is a dark and tiny woman grinning as maliciously as the gnome in Don’t Look Now.

We soon learn that the mysterious creature is called Elka, a mythical Turkish being who appears at childbirth to take the life of the mother, the child, or both. We are not yet told for whom she has come, but it is clear that she is not good news.

This is the latest play by Leyla Nazli, co-founder and executive producer of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, directed by the theatre’s founder Mehmet Ergen. Elka is charismatically played by RADA-trained, Olivier Award-winning Kathryn Hunter, known to the lay person as Arabella Figg in Harry Potter, but renowned on the stage as an accomplished actor and director, lately seen in plays by Shakespeare and Lorca.

It is difficult to take your eyes off Hunter. Her performance is intensely physical, whether riding her invisible mare, dancing ecstatically, or caressing first-time-mother Selma in a distinctly Sapphic manner. Elka is insolent, witty and liberated, though her brand of feminism is an early one – her view of men is not one of equality but of abject inferiority.

The character of Selma, played convincingly by Anna Francolini, is well-rounded. At the start she appears to be an uptight middle-class businesswoman. However, as the play unfolds, her repressed joie de vivre and edgy opinions come to the fore, and the two women strike up an unlikely and twisted kind of companionship.

At first Selma is angry and afraid, but with the help of drugged flowers, free-flowing wine and empowered feminist conversation, she starts to accept the situation. In one of the most visually arresting scenes, they ride together through the night in a Bulgakov-esque journey, framed by the wraith-like hospital bed curtains.

Just when their comments about modern life and Western society risk veering into sweeping generalisations, the two women are joined on stage by the flirty nurse and concerned husband, grounding the play firmly back in reality.

For a production with such strong local links, more could have been done with the specifics of the Hackney setting, and a few plot developments in the latter part of the performance come across as unconvincing. Nevertheless, the magical realist contrast between the everyday and the mythical makes this play a strange and satisfying experience.

Mare Rider
Until 16 February 2013
Arcola Theatre
Ashwin Street
E8 3DL