Writer Lynn Nottage
Director: Miranda Cromwell
They say that elephants never forget and Mlima is such an elephant. Even after death, he returns to haunt his killers and those who might profit from his demise. In her new 90-minute one-act play, receiving its United Kingdom premiere here, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Lynn Nottage sets out to investigate the threats to Africa’s dwindling elephant population and the vile international trade in ivory. The play becomes a passionate plea to save a noble species that is being exterminated in order to satisfy the most trivial of mankind’s fads.
Ira Mandela Siobhan gives an extraordinary performance of power and physical agility as Mlima. The elephant is old and majestic, with enormous tusks, which make him the target of poachers, particularly when he roams away from his herd. The play begins with a moving soliloquy from Mlima and then the poachers arrive.
Director Miranda Cromwell’s simulation of the “execution” is vivid and brutal. Long shadows and silhouettes appear on a pale curtain which swishes backwards and forwards across the bare stage. There is no place for sunlight in this dark and disturbing world and so the tone is set for the sorry tale which follows. The production achieves a mystical feel, underlining a belief in African folklore: “If you not give elephant proper burial, he’ll haunt you forever”.
Nottage and Cromwell set the bar so high with this stunning beginning that they risk making the remainder of the play an anticlimax. And, sadly, so it is. The tale introduces us to corrupt Kenyan officials, powerless conservationists and, as the ivory is shipped from Mombassa to Vietnam en route for China, smugglers, illicit merchants and, eventually, rich clients who treasure freshly-carved statues and ornaments. Mlima’s presence haunts every scene as new characters drift in and out, all played by four actors – Gabrielle Brooks, Brandon Grace, Natey Jones and Pui Fan Lee.
Before the halfway stage, the play takes on the feel of a documentary, loaded by Nottage with sickening facts about the ivory trade, and its dramatic impetus is lost. Flashes of humour are injected as if in recognition of this problem and the imagination of Cromwell’s staging continues to impress, but these things alone are barely enough to rescue a production that starts on a high and then slowly loses its way.
Runs until 21 October 2023