'Mlima's Tale' review – Lynn Nottage's stealthy poaching drama has animal magnetism

Read our four-star review of Mlima's Tale, by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, now in performances at the Kiln Theatre to 21 October.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

This is quite the time for Lynn Nottage on the London stage. The two-time Pulitzer-winner will see a West End transfer next year of Broadway musical smash MJ, for which she wrote the book. That will be preceded next month by the local bow of her acclaimed Broadway play Clyde’s, to be directed for the Donmar by Lynette Linton, who had a resounding success at that same address with Nottage’s blistering drama Sweat.

Getting a jumpstart on both those titles is the UK premiere of her 2018 Public Theater entry, Mlima’s Tale. I saw this play at its Off Broadway premiere and admired it very much, but was by no means prepared for the sensuous allure and political import of this version at northwest London’s Kiln.

For that, credit a director, Miranda Cromwell, who seems to have been building towards this assignment across previous work at the National and the Young Vic (and her Wendell Pierce-led Death of a Salesman last season on Broadway). Taking what might seem piecemeal or polemical in less skilled hands, Cromwell finds the beating, often-furious pulse of a play that works by stealth.

You watch intrigued by the daisy chain of events that makes up the play’s structure, only to realise after the fact that what has seemed in essence like an extended parable carries with it a real sting.

It’s nigh-on impossible to imagine the production without the commanding magnetism of leading player Ira Mandela Siobhan, an invaluable presence in the latest London revival of Equus cast here as the “big tusker” Mlima, the elephant of the title; Siobhan is also credited as associate movement director.

Seen often in shadow or silhouette, Mlima is of value for a pair of sizable tusks, the elephant’s evisceration in the African savannah the gathering source of consternation and conflict that ensnare a cross-section of characters, with the majestic, mysterious Mlima the lone constant.

The result enfolds poachers and purchasers, embassy officials and reporters, into an enquiry into both the business and very being of collectibles. “There is real money here,” notes a Tanzanian businessmen, but expediency gets a look-in, too, as the geography widens to take in a Vietnamese trader, Thuy Fan, and a master craftsman who just may have a conscience – until such point, at least, as he is let loose on what remains of Mlima and starts to carve.

With a nod towards Brecht but far more balletic, Nottage poses questions about the price exacted by exoticism. Mlima’s Tale is very much its own animal, so to speak, and it’s sheer coincidence that an English equivalent of sorts is en route in the Bush Theatre reprise of Anoushka Lucas’s thematically comparable, self-penned Elephant.

At home with both the spiritual and the poetic and yet attuned to the cutthroat politics of the ivory trade, the play must be a tonic to perform, not least with the likes of recent Olivier nominee Gabrielle Brooks (Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical) and the invaluable Pui Fan Lee on hand. And for all the bloodletting at its core, the writing has its own incantatory beauty, so much so that Mlima’s final command to “run!” finds the audience more than ever rooted to its seats.

Mlima's Tale is at the Kiln Theatre through 21 October. Book Mlima's Tale tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Mlima's Tale (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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