'What price are you willing to pay for beauty?' are the haunting words that echo through Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale.

First staged off-Broadway in 2018, this heart-wrenching portrait of the ivory trade charts the end of elephant Mlima’s life; ‘one of the last great tuskers in Kenya’, from his barbaric slaughter, to the transportation of his tusks to an international market.

Greed and rampant corruption are a given in this world as Nottage makes brutally clear in a sequence of vignettes brought to life by multiple characters – skillfully played by an ensemble of five.Ham & High: The cast of Mlima's Tale which runs at Kiln Theatre Kilburn until October 21.The cast of Mlima's Tale which runs at Kiln Theatre Kilburn until October 21. (Image: Marc Brenner)

They embody a spectrum of players; Somali poachers, a customs officer, a director of wildlife. Locations sweep past: Kenya, Nairobi, Vietnam, China. Nottage drives home the point that the web of lies and self-deception for this bounty – 7 million yuan is touted by the final salesman in a boutique shop in Beijing – is finely spun.

It's a vicious trade propelled by criminal urgency. The buyers - and there’s a wonderful scene where a brittle Chinese diplomat tangoes with an ebullient Tanzanian businessman as she reminisces about her grandfather’s ivory collection - pride themselves on their fine artistic tastes, but the horror comes full circle in an eviscerating tableaux as nouveau riche partygoers reach out in awe to touch Mlima’s carved tusks, as dust rains down.

The real coup lies in the way we occupy the elephant’s point of view. There are no impressive puppets to anthropomorphise the blow, but rather Mlina is embodied by the actor Ira Mandela Siobhan. A hypnotic presence, Siobhan meets the audience’s gaze head on, demanding accountability and respect, his movement powerful and balletic.Ham & High: Ira Mandela Siobhan plays the slain elephant MlimaIra Mandela Siobhan plays the slain elephant Mlima (Image: Marc Brenner)

His Somali poacher warns ‘if you do not give an elephant a proper burial it haunts you forever’ and Mlina makes this his mission, marking out each complicit individual, smearing them with white chalk.

A couple of design choices over-state: billowing curtains, huge ears floating above stage. In one scene, the ensemble become murdered elephants calling out to lost relatives, and the suggested parallel with refugees is harrowing though too easily made. Miranda Cromwell’s pacey direction ensures the cruelty is fierce, often cleverly conveyed through satirized stereotypes, as the tragedy unfolds.

Mlima's Tale runs at Kiln Theatre Kilburn until October 21.