In Anatolia there is a tradition that friends and family sit up with a new mother and baby for three days and three nights, a time when they are held to be particularly vulnerable to evil and supernatural forces; Leyla Nazli’s play centres on a modern woman untraditionally parted from her new baby and family, bed-bound alone, visited by the sinister Mare Rider. Past and present, real and imaginary are lined up alongside each other like so many hospital beds, in a brilliant look at the dark spirits that still shade cradles, however much we try to dispel them.
In a deserted night time ward, Elka, the Mare Rider (Kathryn Hunter), a grizzled Ancient Mariner of a woman, locks the convalescent Selma (Anna Francolini) into her narrative of grinding, fairytale misery; in punishment for riding her uncle’s black mare, she was forced into marriage with her ugly cousin, bodily tied into a cycle of domestic torture and drudgery. Elka’s freedom and escape comes at the expense of other women’s happiness, as she travels by night, killing mothers and babies; Selma’s freedom is similarly linked to the sabotage of maternal ambitions, her ability to choose independence and a career counterbalanced by her aloneness as an older parent in an unfamilial hospital. Subtle, though, this play is no manifesto for traditional values, with Elka’s arguments all-persuasive in the dark night, hissing out Selma’s fears, but still undermined by her very physical presence, by the past-bound medieval horrors that she represents.
Kathryn Hunter’s performance is a force of nature in the most literal sense, whipping up bedsheets in a hurricane of weedy vigour, dishevelling the white hospital world like a dark, creeping stain – slight, she still exerts physical threat, her rasping voice addictively mesmerising.
Breaking up the emotional push-and-pull of Selma and Elka’s interactions, the real, but less real appearances of Hara Yannas’s beautifully judged nurse Claire evoke a different kind of pragmatism, the hospital need to keep the peace, to contain nature behind curtains and stifle anguish with sedation; her superficial ‘niceness’ is ruthlessly undermined by lines that reveal her own self-interest, her need to get through a long night shift hour by hour. In her hands, the hospital becomes a machine to keep families apart, Selma’s husband (Matthew Flynn) kept at agonising distance by a series of carefully engineered missed opportunities. Immaculately structured shifts of perspective and tone make this a slippery piece, intense confrontations interspersed with mundane routine and ill-advised flirtation. Although bleak, the mood is complicated by switching sympathies and elided certainties, by bold political statements left to hang in the air unchallenged – the maternity ward is a small compass for themes that beg to be teased out further.
Call the Midwife dramatises in cheery polychrome the cultural shift from home birth to hospital; Mare Rider offers a more pessimistic approach to the pathologisation of pregnancy and its aftermath, revealing the darkest hue of fairytale creature lingering in the emotional spaces that doctors can’t reach. Couched in myth, whimsy squats darkly at the heart of this play; her magic has all the comfort of Smarties offered in place of anaesthetic.