The Arcola theatre was filled to the rafters Friday night to see Leyla Nazli’s latest production “Mare Rider”. It is the story of a sinister Turkish mythical figure Elka, played frighteningly well by Olivier award winning actress Kathryn Hunter, who is believed to take away babies from their mothers and her visits to Selma (Anna Francolini), a woman about to give birth at Homerton Hospital in Hackney. It is an engrossing play about myths, fears of childbirth and questions of identity.
Arcola’s Studio 1 resembled the snowy white scenery we’ve been experiencing here in London this week. The beams above were all white, the hospital bed was covered with white blankets and even Selma is dressed in a white night gown. The play opens with the sound of a horse galloping when a black figure appears in the hospital room. It is a small goth looking woman with mangled black voluminous hair which makes for a stark contrast with the aforementioned surroundings. This scary woman is Elka who comes to haunt Selma in her sleep and tells stories from her past of her oppressive suitor, village and her desire to break free from these restrictions so she can ride her Uncle’s black mare across the plains of Anatolia.
The stories of these two very different women are intertwined as they are both searching for freedom. Selma is looking to have a voice in the “untrusting silence” which surrounds her while Elka is looking to defy the suffocating conventions in her traditionally male dominated world. Though the stories seem highly in congruent this juxtaposition works. Kathryn Hunter plays Elka with such power and mystery that it is hard not to be completely absorbed by her. She has created a character which is both vile and at the same time I found myself sympathising with her plight.
Anna Francolini matched Hunter’s performance with great vulnerability, sadness and also desperation. The exchanges between her and her husband Mark played by Matthew Flyn were deeply moving. Nazli’s descriptions are really beautifully done, especially when Elkta delivers a monologue about her rides into the dark night of Anatolia. Director Mehmet Ergen, Movement Director Nathan M. Wright and Lighting Designer Richard Williamson did a great job in helping to bring out the fantastical style of the writing with excellent use of what appeared to be traditional Turkish dance, contrasting lights and a great use of a rather restrictive space.
Nazli gives us a lot to chew over. In fact, I left feeling a bit perplexed. In our pursuit of more freedom, have modern women lost the plot some how? Or was it Elka who is ultimately the feminist warrior fighting the good fight and rather than condemning her, should we praise her? The whole journey was mystifying and I’m still reflecting on the greater themes this play was confronting. I think Nazli would be happy about that.
Mare Rider will be on at the Arcola Theatre till February 16th and will be touring as part of the Europe Now project, a theatrical collaboration between Sweden, Turkey , Holland and Germany. Box Office 020 7503 1646 or go online at www.arcolatheatre.com.