The gargantuan tusks are hinted at but never shown. No puppetry or animatronics are used to present Mlima, one of the last “great tuskers” in Kenya. Instead, the legendary elder is brought to life by Ira Mandela Siobhan’s lithe body, dancing his way across the sand-coloured stage. His ground-brushing tusks are intimated by silhouettes of the actor’s limbs and his arms are slathered with chalky paint, an echo of the ivory that makes him so valuable. His billowing ears are suggestions from a wicker chair back, a shadow, elbows triangled outwards.
It is said that if you don’t give an elephant a proper burial, it will haunt you forever. In Lynn Nottage’s wide-reaching and damning indictment of the ivory trade, the memories of dead elephants knot themselves throughout. Directed by Miranda Cromwell, Mlima’s Tale whisks us from the poacher’s attack to the black-market business of selling the tusks. In physical interactions that make arresting tableaux yet are occasionally unhandy in practice, the ever-lurking ghost leaves a white chalky trace on the faces and clothes of the living, marking their part in his murder.
One character leads us to the next, guiding us along the daisy chain of shifty deals to get Mlima’s tusks out of the country. The cast of five (one more than in the original American production) shapeshift as we constantly meet new characters; Natey Jones is brilliant as an indignant poacher and hip-thrusting dealer, while Brandon Grace transforms from avoidant park owner to chic, guilt-free buyer. But the constant mutations, marked by a swish of a curtain, make it hard for tension to build. While Nottage’s story encapsulates the complex struggles of conservation and the deep-rooted tentacles of corruption, we rarely pause long enough in each vignette to delve deeply into the players of the brutal drama.
Yet the strength of this constant forward propulsion is in the revelation of the huge swathe of people who have to turn their head and accept a bribe for the illegal ivory trade to continue. “What price are you willing to pay for beauty?” a prospective buyer is asked. Nottage never lays the blame on a single character or presents anyone without good reason for their actions, but perhaps it is this buyer, the one creating the demand, who holds the most responsibility. If so, we are all guilty. For who among us hasn’t bought something beautiful and chosen not to look too deeply at how it got there?
At Kiln theatre, London, until 21 October