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Mare Rider

Leyla Nazli
Arcola Theatre

Kathryn Hunter in Mare Rider Credit: Simon Annand

In the maternity ward of a London hospital, a woman has recently given birth. She is Selma, a woman who put off motherhood to concentrate on her career. Things have been touch and go. Now, slipping in and out of consciousness, she has a nightmare visitation. It is the frightening figure of black-garbed Elka, the Mare Rider of Anatolian folklore who takes the lives of babies.

Selma must come from a Turkish family. She may clutch at this being a crazy lunatic but she soon recognises the woman who claims to “have travelled through the plateau of Mongolia, over the mountains of Afghanistan, Kashmir, the rivers of India, beautiful gardens of Babylon, crossing the deserts of Arabia, Mesopotamia the cradle of civilisation, now ruins of Anatolia, skipping over the magnificent Alps to the end of nowhere, Homerton Hospital in Hackney.”

Men can stop Elka but where is Mark, Selma’s husband, when he’s needed? He does turn up when she’s asleep and, as she sleeps, Elka shows a nurse flirting with him. Anyway, he has come too late. Elka has already held Selma’s baby.

This is an hour-long confrontation between a woman who tried to escape the male domination and enslavement of her time and culture and a modern woman equally trapped by modern circumstance. It is grippingly grim and receives stark presentation in Mehmet Ergen’s stylish production.

It is played on a traverse, the audience faced by a ghostly mirror of themselves. Designer Matthew Wright slashes the black space with a narrow band of white: white floor, wall, ceiling, bed, bed curtains, sheets and Selma’s nightdress. It is a stark strip set against blackness, over which black-dressed and booted Elka claims control.

Charismatic Kathryn Hunter, black hair likes a forest, as wild as her rough garb, gives Elka a harsh, otherworldly vocal quality, sometimes so quickly-spoken she challenges comprehension. That captures Elka’s bitterness but at the same time can express a strange gentleness.

Although Hunter dominates, Anna Fracolini takes on perhaps a bigger challenge with Selma, by turns frightened, hysterical and angry or sedated and with her own experiences and strong opinions to share while being manipulated by the nightmare Rider.

In a play so strongly from a woman’s point of view, men get off lightly. As Mark, Matthew Flynn can play the caring, loving husband. It is Hara Yanna's nurse whose behaviour becomes questionable. Selma is given a very graphic image of male collaboration, female self-interest: crabs thrown into boiling water—the males forming a ladder to climb out, the females jumping on top of each other.

“I wonder why we‘re like that” says Selma. “That’s what I have been wondering for thousands of years.” Elka replies.

Following its run at the Arcola Mare Rider will tour in Sweden and Germany

Reviewer: Howard Loxton