Leyla Nazli's enigmatic new play is a bedtime story with a difference. The listener is Selma, a woman trapped in a Hackney hospital bed after a traumatic labour. And the teller is Elka, a nightmarish character from Turkish mythology who rides bareback across continents and centuries to spirit away babies at their birth.
It's a part that could have been written for Kathryn Hunter, who arrives in designer Matthew Wright's sterile white ward room as the sound of a monitored heartbeat melds in to hoof thuds. With a blood-spattered black cloak, a thunder cloud of matted hair and a voice as fertile and fetid as earth, her Elka is both alarming and comforting, wild and conspiratorial, pungently female and proudly unfeminine. At one point she throws herself into a fierce, spatchcocked dance that's a pure distillation of Hunter's uninhibited art.
Elka is also reminiscent of Caryl Churchill's folkloric death portent-cum-storyteller 'The Skriker', played by Hunter in 1994. And, like Churchill, Nazli wants to talk about the state of the world, and womanhood, at large. In between pleading to see her baby, joining Elka on a sensual imaginary gallop through a mythic landscape, and listening to Elka's own life-story of a spirited girl on the run from an oppressive marriage, Anna Francolini's Selma frets about wars, epidemics, the fallacy of sisterhood and the plight of the twenty-first century career woman.
Is Elka a manifestation of grief, post-natal depression? Or the gap in understanding between Selma and husband Mark (Matthew Flynn)? Or to compensate for the rather implausible omissions in care of Hara Yannas’s young NHS nurse?
The script promises more answers than it delivers, and both Nazli's vivid poetry and Mehmet Ergen's direction flag when Hunter isn't at a scene's reins. But Elka, who spins, tilts and straddles Selma's hospital bed like a difficult mare, is a powerful talisman for a question that's as pertinent to today's women as ever – the nature, and price, of freedom. Bella Todd