The Evil Trade in Ivory

“Don’t think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm. “

Introduction to Scene Eight


Ira Mandela Siobhan as Mlima (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 Lynn Nottage’s play Mlima’s Tale, which showed in New York in 2018, is a searing condemnation of the brutality of the trade in ivory using elephant tusks. She examines the journey the tusks make from the killing of one of Kenya’s most magnificent bull elephants, a great tusker known for the outstanding size of his tusks to the final resting place of the ivory trinkets with the ultra rich in money but not morality.  

From Lynn Nottage, we have had prizewinning plays about a such an interesting range of diverse subjects. The first one I remember was the comedy Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine in 2006, Ruined about women caught in warfare in 2010, Intimate Apparel about a mixed race relationship in the lingerie trade 2014, Sweat about Labour relations in Pennsylvania 2018, and most recently The Secret Life of Bees 2023 about women and bee keeping. Next year in London we shall have her take on the new musical about Michael Jackson, MJ.  And we have Clyde’s opening at the Donmar Warehouse this month.

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Mlima (Photo: Marc Brenner)
The name of the elephant, Mlima means mountain in Swahil.  Ira Mandela Siobhan takes on the title role with a magnificent physicality, speaking to our emotions.  The elephant shape consists of an elephant head behind gauze curtains and we see from the head the figure of a man. 
This elephant Mlima is revered in all of Kenya but two poachers from Somalia have been commissioned by Githinji, the corrupt chief of police, played by Gabrielle Brooks, to find a dozen smaller elephant trunks.  We watch the agonizing death of the elephant as he’s shot first with poisoned arrows and then axed to death. The noise of a gunshot, a more humane death might have alerted the game park rangers.  The play’s harrowing trajectory follows the tusks through the hands of smugglers and traders.   
Two poachers with Gabrielle Brooks as the Chief of Police (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Although there are  international regulations with severe penalties about the export and import of ivory, Lynn Nottage’s play shows how greed and corruption bypass and make a mockery of these rules.  Wamwara Machau  (Nate Jones) the Regional Warden of the Kenyan National Park feels the shame at having let Mlima die in his care but he too is bought off.  

It is amazing that a cast of just five play numerous parts, spanning continents on the journey taken by the tusks.  Lynne Nottage’s writing has given voice to the elephant in an opening and closing monologue but the after death presence of the great tusker is conveyed by movement so that we feel his pain.   Each person who touches the elephant or the tusks is daubed by white paint from the elephant’s fore limb marking their guilt. 

Nottage’s  descriptive writing is outstanding. She describes ivory like this, “It is the gold of the uncouth and the wealthy”.  The powerful metaphor for the killing of a magnificent species of our natural world is, “A man’s greed is like a snake that wants to swallow an elephant.”  

The subject of wildlife is often neglected by new drama. Do not miss this important play!

Cast (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Production Notes

Mlima’s Tale

Written by Lynne Nottage

Directed by Miranda Cromwell



Brandon Grace

Gabrielle Brooks

Ira Mandela Siobhan

Natey Jones

Pui Fan Lee


Director: Miranda Cromwell

Designer: Amelia Jane Hankin

Lighting Designer: Amy Mae

Sound Designer: Emma Laxton

Movement: Shelley Maxwell


Running Time: 90 minutes without an interval

Booking to 21st October 2023


The Kiln

 269 Kilburn High Road


 London NW6 7JR

Phone: 020 7328 1000

Website: Kiln Theatre

Rail/Tube: Brondesbury,


Reviewed by

Lizzie Loveridge

at the Kiln Theatre

on 21st September 2023