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Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage at Kiln Theatre

I was lucky enough to see the New York premiere of Lynne Nottage’s tight mini-epic at The Public some five years ago. Maybe it was the jet lag, but in that experience, it took me a while to figure out that Mlima, the narrator who opens the play, is in fact an elephant – and not just any elephant but the last of the ‘great tuskers’ who are supposed to be protected but whose ivory remains in high demand in certain quarters – the economics of which are a dramatically complex force. In Miranda Cromwell’s production for the Kiln, the UK premiere, Amelia Jane Hankin’s shadowy, sparse and scrim-like design left me in no doubt as to Mlima’s species but still provoked a kind of wonder at the emotional connection with beautiful beast – visceral and not at all sentimental. Ira Mandela Siobhan as Mlima offers a magnificent stage presence with the stillness of his dancer’s form evoking all the grace, majesty and latent threat of the endangered last few great bulls, the biggest of the Big Five. Amy Mae’s lighting design is crucial to the mood – dreamlike in its silhouettes and distortions; at times elegiac and dusky, whilst at others its glaring brightness conjures the hyper-real selfie-style flashes of human ego and social status.

Mlima's Tale: Brandon Grace and Ira Mandela Siobhan. Credit Marc Brenner.
Mlima’s Tale: Brandon Grace and Ira Mandela Siobhan. Credit Marc Brenner.

The genius of Nottage’s script is that it compactly illustrates – without polemical oversimplification nor overcomplication – how competing urges for status, art, power, love, family and survival interconnect to form haunting tragedy again and again across ancient trade routes and alliances. When Hassan Abdulla (Natey Jones) meets Guoxi (Pui Fan Lee) at the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi, in a scene entitled ‘No One Tests the Depth of the River with Both Feet’, the entrepreneur and the government official’s dancing around the matter of ‘artefacts’ and ‘collectables’ becomes a literal tango. Bringing to life the subversive thrill and quest for prestige that accompanies the brutality and risk of the contraband ivory trade, the scene also points to perceptions of a ‘white saviour’ posture in African animal conservation and its counter-productive effect. By having Mlilma speak for himself of the fraternal and filial bonds broken by his slaughter, Nottage avoids a finger-wagging Global North tone – retaining the complexity of a real drama which tells a tale but offers no agit-prop or solutions.

Cromwell’s production, aided by Femi Temowo’s score and Shelly Maxwell’s choreography – and catalysed to another level by Siobhan’s athleticism and grace — is immersive and balletic; so much so that I could almost imagine an adaptation that was entirely a dance piece. But the dialogue is sharp and, in many places barbed and funny, which keeps the pace on- point even for a short play. With a cast of four multi-rolling, there are certain choices that, by design, feel more like sketches. I found a few of the play’s later sketches – which need to allude to archetypes (with a sort of Brechtian schtick about them) but also need to avoid caricature – played a tad too broadly but I suspect these moments may ‘season’ as the run progresses. Other scenes, such as the early confrontation between Wamwara, the regional warden tasked with protecting the elephant (played by Jones) and secret poacher Githinji (Gabrielle Brooks) are perfectly rendered mini-tragedies.

Mlima’s Tale is thought-provoking and haunting but not a dirge. Visually and aurally beautiful, Cromwell delivers an emotionally and sensorially immersive experience of Nottage’s clever and compelling play.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Mlima is known as one of the last ‘Great Tuskers’ – elephants with tusks so large they touch the ground. When he is murdered for these magnificent tusks, Mlima’s ghost follows those connected to his death. From poachers, to government officials, to ivory carvers, he watches as capitalism, greed and corruption marks everyone in the ivory trade.

Kiln Theatre presents the UK Premiere
MLIMA’S TALE
BY LYNN NOTTAGE
21 Sep – 21 Oct 2023
https://kilntheatre.com/

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Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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