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Mlima’s Tale

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Mlima’s Tale, Kiln Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Lynn Nottage’s experimental drama about the ivory trade is punchy but it feels like there could be more to it

It is said that if an elephant isn’t given a proper burial, its spirit will haunt you forever. So, in Lynn Nottage’s ‘Mlima’s Tale’, the ghost of Mlima – one of the last ‘big tuskers’ in Kenya – remains a phantom presence long after his barbaric death. 

But, crucially in Miranda Cromwell’s production his giant animal form is never seen. Instead, he is humanised in the shape of Ira Mandela Siobhan’s acrobatic performance. Through a mix of shadow puppetry, white dusty paint and curved, balletic movement, Mlima’s tusks become synonymous with Siobhan’s agile body: his striking, majestic physicality; an unceasing reminder of the horrors of the ivory trade.

Beginning with Mlima’s cruel killing, the play follows his tusks along the different stages of the supply chain. Through corrupt deals, the black market, across oceans into the hands of carvers, and finally, to the home of an art admiring, money is no object billionaire, the play travels – the whole time with the memory of the elephant looming, just one step behind. 

The story is a simple one that tracks process rather than lingering on the emotions of those we meet along the way – sometimes, we could benefit from staying in each section longer. A cast of five morphs seamlessly from one new character to the next. Brandon Grace shapeshifts from the elephant’s protector to a designer art collector with consideration, while Pui Fan Lee plays a young boy, forced to take part in the trade game for money with genuine fear in her eyes.

We only hear from Mlima once, in a reflective opening monologue that describes how his freedom has been lost to poachers. But, the reverberations of his words are always there. Together, it is a beautifully curated spectacle – even if it sometimes is a little too neatly tailored to sustain tension. Scenes are ended by the draw of a flowy, translucent curtain. An elephant head hangs, menacing above the stage. Music and sound designed by Femi Temowo and Emma Laxton provide eerie echoes of the animal’s past, carefree life. The whole picture is one of grace, care and properly deep sadness.


It’s a play that points out humanity’s selfishness and corruption. But, never does the script veer into thunderous rage. From the grave Milma sees the damning impact of greed and capitalism but Nottage’s strength as a writer is that his silent presence is enough to make you enraged. No words are wasted here – she doesn’t need them to be.

Written by
Anya Ryan


£15-£35. Runs 1hr 20min
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