Review: MLIMA'S TALE, Kiln Theatre

Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s heartwrenching exploration into the ivory trade makes its UK premiere.

By: Sep. 22, 2023
Review: MLIMA'S TALE, Kiln Theatre

Review: MLIMA'S TALE, Kiln Theatre Loosely based on the article The Ivory Highway, Lynn Nottage’s (MJ The Musical) eye-opening drama first made its Off-Broadway premiere in 2018. Now setting its sights in London’s Kiln Theatre, her powerful message on the impact of corruption and greed still remains as urgent as it did five years ago.

An elephant named Mlima is one of the last ‘Great Tuskers’ - possessing tusks so large they can reach the ground. After being brutally slaughtered by poachers in a Kenya reserve, Mlima’s spirit follows the complex journey into the devastating and still very real corruption of the ivory trade.

“You think it true what Massai say? If you not give elephant proper burial he’ll haunt you forever,” a poacher asks after Milma’s distressing murder in the opening scene. Instead of your traditional ghost, Mlima takes many forms in Nottage’s brutal, poetic and eye-opening script as she chooses not to lay the blame on a single person for his fate.

Brilliantly directed by Miranda Cromwell, we as the audience feel powerless as his spirit goes through the chain of corruption, from a high ranking police officer to greedy government officials to an ivory carver to a millionaire buyer complicit to the international ivory trade in the name of capitalism. As we see nobody hold themselves accountable in the part they played, the final scene feels like an urgent call to action to prevent the same chain of events from happening again.

While simplistic, Amelia Jane Hankin’s revolving set chooses to highlight Mlima’s form, occasionally revealing giant wicker ears put to effective use in shadow illusions. It’s in Amy Mae's lighting where the visuals shine from the golden rays of the savanna, soon turning cold and white as Mlima’s spirit haunts the stage, ending on striking and artificial pinks that feel so removed from the naturalism the audience witnessed a mere 90 minutes prior.

Forgoing elaborate puppetry, Ira Mandela Siobhan plays the titular Mlima with great physicality and fluidity, giving the elephant humanity and a soul as he dances across the stage. Retelling advice from his grandmother, stories with his friends and the love for his mate Mumbi, we immediately feel empathy for the creature. A striking presence covered in white chalk paint, his spirit marks each person complicit.

These are brilliantly played by the rest of the five-piece cast in multiple roles including Gabrielle Brooks (Get Up Stand Up!) as police officer and gallery seller, Natey Jones (Death Of A Salesmans) as the unrepentant poacher, Pui Fan Lee as a Chinese government official and Vietnamese ivory carver, and Brandon Grace going from an uncertain park owner to a millionaire who buys Mlima’s ivory with no second thought.

Anger-inducing and a cry to action, Mlima’s Tale is a devastating yet moving exploration into the ivory trade. A powerful drama beautifully played by a talented group of actors who bring Nottage’s script to life with such passion and tenacity, this is an urgent watch not to be missed.

Mlima's Tale runs at the Kiln Theatre until 21 October

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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