Updated: Sep 24
Review by Sam Waite
The Pulitzer Prize for Drama is not the most common accolade to come by, and for most recipients is a once in a lifetime achievement. Most recipients, of course, aren't Lynn Nottage, the first – and to date, only – woman to receive the award twice, for her plays Sweat and Ruined. First seen overseas in 2018, Nottage’s Mlima’s Talenow makes its UK debut at London’s Kiln Theatre, bringing a striking artistry to the off-West End stage.
Early on in the play, one poacher tells another that failing to give a proper burial to the titular elephant, for whose tusks he’s been felled, will lead to a lifelong haunting. This becomes the thesis statement for the performance, with Mlima’s ever-present spirit following the journey of his stolen ivory, figuratively – as well as literally – marking those whose hands the tusks pass through.
Ira Mandela Siobhan is tasked with bringing the “Great Tusker” to life, so to speak. Recently seen in Regent’s Park’s reimagined Robin Hood, this production finds him in a much more spiritual, symbolic role – Mlima dies during the opening sequence, and while his spirit is ever-present he does not actively partake in any of the scenes. Silenced for much of the runtime, Siobhan’s powerful presence and boldness of expression serve the role well, as does his fluid, magnetic movement when performing a number of dance and movement pieces to relay his ongoing frustration.
Nottage is uninterested in sugarcoating a horrific industry, and brings to life the brutality of the ivory trade and the duplicity of those willing to engage in it at any level. It's no spoiler to say there isn't a happy ending, with the title character being already dead and no use of his ivory justifying the murder, but Nottage’s script does find notes of humour in her human characters. Crucially, these moments of laughter are always at the failings of the characters, and never with their viewpoints or intentions.
The human hands who pass both Mlima’s tusks and his story along are played by the small ensemble of Brandon Grace, Natey Jones, Pui Fan Lee, and Gabrielle Brooks. All are compelling and keep the momentum of the story from lagging, and above all else ought to be congratulated on their only acknowledging Siobhan’s bold, imposing presence when the roles call for it. Where some amount of singing is called for to both create and maintain the spiritual, otherworldly energy present, Brooks in particular shines. Another Regent’s Park alum, the vocals on show in Once On This Island are as rich and warm as ever here.
Music for the show is composed by Femi Temowo, whose underlying score brings an almost cinematic element to certain sequences, particularly the clever transitions between scenes. Emma Laxton’s sound design balances the composer’s and playwright's work nicely, and utilises repeating voices to bring a sense of Mlima’s and his family’s pain to the forefront. Amy Mae’s lighting design is primarily used in tandem with Amelia Jane Hankin’s utilitarian set, using sheer curtains to creat silhouettes which help to create the world of Mlima’s Tale.
Miranda Cromwell handles the material with a sure hand, if with some slightly repetitive choices in her transitions from one scene to another. Using a raised revolve in Hankin’s staging, she has Mlima and others on a literal and metaphorical treadmill, forever moving forward without truly making progress. Actors and additional set pieces enter the stage as the pair of curtains are pulled across the stage, an effective method that gradually loses its element of surprise in the latter half of the show.
Proving essential for the most visually striking element of the production are Tamara James Dickson and Alice Hardy, who are behind – among other things – the show’s make-up. Following his character's demise, Siobhan adorns his arms with a white paste, both lending him a most ghostly, ethereal image and representing the tusks themselves, as the artic act Mlima is haunting. Not only is this same substance used to mark those who gave failed to protect his honour and legacy, but its presence on Siobhan’s body increases as the story progresses, suggesting a descent into the state of haunting spectre from which he is less and Lea likely to return.
Likely too metaphorical for some times, and perhaps even too upsetting a subject matter for some – “Those white people love their animals,” a character says – Mlima’s Tale still offers a clear example of how Lynn Nottage came to hold both of her Pulitzer Prizes. Visually arresting and a testament to how powerful a statement can be made with such a minimalist approach, this new production is a welcome addition to both Nottage’s and Cromwell’s esteemed portfolios.
Mlima's Tale plays at the Kiln Theatre until October 21st.
For tickets and information visit https://kilntheatre.com/whats-on/mlimas-tale/#
Photos by Marc Brenner