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Gnarly and weird performance by Kathryn Hunter stands out in Leyla Nazli’s play about birth at Homerton Hospital

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MARE RIDER

Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street, E8

Three stars

Kathryn Hunter returns to her spiritual home at the Arcola, bringing her trademark brand of ‘weird’ that’s now so widely recognised it’s probably enough in itself to pull the crowds to this new play by relative newcomer Leyla Nazli.

Fans of the gnarly Hunter won’t be let down. Here, in Mare Rider, she captivates once again, this time playing a mythical Turkish figure with wild back-combed hair, tattered black leather clothes and plentiful opportunity to engage her unique raspy voice in dark and whimsical folkloric tales.

The 60-minute play is set in a sterile stark white hospital room in Homerton, where a bed with curtain and two uncomfortable-looking chairs occupy the stage.

Hunter’s Elka is one of two main female leads. She is known to some as a bad spirit who steals babies from brand new mums. She pays an ominous visit to Selma (Anna Francolini) who seems to be suffering in the aftermath of a troublesome (but not initially explained) birthing experience. Selma is demonstrably disturbed and we can never be entirely sure whether Elka exists or is a manifestation of her own demons.

Elka spins lengthy yarns about growing up in an abusive family some time long ago and far away. She speaks engagingly on her bid for freedom and riding bare back in the Anatolian mountains, and themes emerge, albeit very allusively, of feminism, 21st century living, motherhood and marriage.

Unfortunately the play gets stuck here. Two supporting characters - Mark (Matthew Flynn), Selma’s husband, and the nurse (Hara Yannas) – bring with them a sub-plot of sorts. But at this point it feels more like an after-thought.

The three stars really go to Kathryn Hunter, who makes the most of the material. Until February 16.

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