“I’m a legendary woman my dear, and as you know, the legendary women never die”
Leyla Nazli co-founded the Arcola with Mehmet Ergen in 2000 and it was here that her first play, Silver Birch House, was directed by Ergen to considerable acclaim in 2007. And with her new play Mare Rider, her writing returns to the Dalston theatre, directed by Ergen again and featuring a highly seductive cast including Kathryn Hunter and Anna Francolini. The Mare Rider is full of mystery, a bad spirit named Elka, reputed to haunt new mothers and as Selma goes through a troublesome birth at Homerton Hospital, the two women take a journey of haunting revelation that hinges somewhere between fantasy and tragedy.
Elka is the kind of role Hunter revels in inhabiting. A mythical figure from Turkish fairytales, there’s a strong vein of mordant humour in her stories of her own rebellious long-gone past in which her struggle for independence was subverted to make her an enemy of her own society and thus a monstrous legend was born. She’s also a highly fantastical figure and her tales of adventure frequently possess a magical quality, something conjured excellent by Richard Williamson’s lighting and video design from Ben Walden and Dick Straker and of course, Hunter’s own sinuous physicality, whether stamping out a tribal dance, aggressively flipping beds or riding a horse across the Anatolian plain.
And then there’s Francolini’s Selma, the epitome of contemporary womanhood but as her freedom to choose is directly contrasted with Elka’s lack thereof in her own youth, Nazli subtly makes the point that she’s not necessarily as free as she might think. As Elka stalks Selma’s subconscious as her body lies recovering from a traumatic childbirth, she pushes forth the idea that her choices to pursue her career and have a late pregnancy are as much a product of societal pressure as Elka’s own. Francolini has a wonderful wildness to her nature as Selma, her nationality is never stated but one is tempted to draw connections between the two women as their stridency does seem intrinsically linked.
Unlike the forever patrolling Mare Rider though, Selma isn’t alone, she is married. And Nazli works in the character of Mark, her lawyer husband, with a delicate sensitivity, acknowledging the strains of living with such a tempestuously vibrant personality but also the great joy it has to bring too. The show’s highlight is in a most elegantly structured scene where Selma is forced to watch a distraught Mark unburden himself to Hara Yannas’ compassionate nurse as she can only respond to the shadowy Elka, this couple finding it easier to deconstruct their relationship to strangers as communication between them is just too difficult.
And it is in these later scenes that the play gathers its emotional power to deliver its substantial payload – the veil between fantasy and illusion comes crashing down with a stark brutality and cold hard reality kicks in. It’s a highly affecting ending which crystallises the enigma that has gone before to create something highly captivating in the redesigned Arcola which shows real signs of recapturing its magic as a venue, not least in Matthew Wright’s set design which is an excellent use of the space.