Last Updated on 23rd September 2023
Mark Ludmon reviews Lynn Nottage’s powerful Mlima’s Tale at Kiln Theatre in London
Kiln Theatre, London
Despite international bans on the trade of ivory, the barbaric hunting of elephants and the illegal market for their tusks continue. In Mlima’s Tale, Lynn Nottage explores and exposes the networks of culpability twisting around the world by following the journey of the tusks of one bull elephant, Mlima, after his horrific slaughter by poachers on the Kenyan savanna.
The play’s power comes from the spirit of Mlima himself who haunts every scene as, like La Ronde, guilt over the elephant’s murder is traced through a chain of different characters from a corrupt police chief and a well-meaning park warden through to importers, artists and collectors. His spirit, invisible to the perpetrators, witnesses and responds to the desecration of his giant tusks, daubing the guilty with white paint like a bloody mark of Cain. For some, the motivation is greed or need for money while for others the complicity lies in inaction due to outside pressure or simply turning a blind eye to what is happening.
Working with movement director Shelley Maxwell, Ira Mandela Siobhan embodies the noble, suffering Mlima with sinewy, twisting fluidity. The human characters are well played by the other four members of the cast, including Gabrielle Brooks, Brandon Grace and Natey Jones, but they are fleeting and often sketchy, making the ghost-like elephant more palpable and human in comparison. He tells us of his family and long ancestry, emphasising the strong sense of community among elephants who notably mourn and recognise the bones of their dead.
Directed by Miranda Cromwell, Mlima’s Tale is polemical and enlightening, turning facts and figures into a compelling and moving condemnation of the ivory trade. It is given added power by Femi Temowo’s music and Amy Mae’s abstract lighting design of shifting colours, resulting in a haunting, thought-provoking drama that will leave nobody in any doubt about the cruel and senseless brutality of ivory trading and collection.
Running at Kiln Theatre in London to 21 October 2023