Mlima’s Tale unfolds with the directness and simplicity of a child’s bedtime story. Yet it is the grimmest of Grimm tales.
Playwright Lynn Nottage takes as her theme the illegal trade in ivory which is driving Africa’s elephant population to the verge of extinction. As we learn from a Kenyan conservationist in the course of the play: “Ivory trafficking has decimated our elephant population. 45 years ago there were 1.3 million elephants roaming the plains and forests of Africa, today there are less than 400,000…There are more elephants being killed than being born…”
This play, in 16 short scenes, is an eloquent and emotional explanation of how that can possibly be. It begins, in Miranda Cromwell’s assured and imaginative production, with the elephant itself. Ira Mandela Siobhan stands on a moving platform and tells of his historic legacy, his life on the savannah, and of his final demise.
This powerful animal, one of the last “big tuskers”, is being hunted by Somali poachers who seek to make their own fortune and feed their families from the sale of his perfect ivory tusks. From there, Nottage tracks the layers of greed that bypass the ban meant to protect the elephants, tracing a line of corruption that extends from the police chief and regional wardens who encourage and benefit from the trade, to the powerless conservationist, to the Chinese ivory carver, proud of an ancient craft, and the modern art buyer anxious for a statement piece to embellish their new apartment.
As Mlima’s tusks pass through each set of hands, Mlima himself appears, his body streaked with glistening white, and he passes the taint of the crime onto each participant in this evil daisy chain, marking their face or their clothes with the ivory stain.
Cromwell and her movement director Shelley Maxwell have devised for Siobhan (who is credited as an assistant movement director) motions that conjure the spirit and beauty of an elephant without ever attempting to mimic its actual shape. Helped by Amelia Jane Hankin’s set of curtains and an overhanging bundle in grey plastic that seems to be in the shape of an elephant’s head, he creates an accusatory power by the force of his silent actions.
When his body lies prone over a Vietnamese trader’s chair, and the script talks of his beauty, the production makes a visceral link between our humanity and our cruelty to the animals around us. It is an extraordinary image, designed to stir up anger and revulsion.
Sometimes Nottage’s almost poetic writing tips into polemic, revealing its origins in a long piece of reportage on the plight of the elephants; sometimes it slows things down. But the four cast members who take on multiple roles – Gabrielle Brooks, Brandon Grace, Natey Jones and Pui Fan Lee – are exceptionally clever at keeping up the momentum, endowing each character they play with enough characteristics to make each scene spring to vivid life.
In this way, the entire production perfectly serves a narrative that ends up making you furious as well as sad, an unbearable play for today that is unfortunately only too real to be a fairy tale.