The Beekeeper of Aleppo
From the novel by Christy Lefteri, adapted for the stage by Nesrin Alreaai and Matthew Spangler
Nottingham Playhouse in association with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Newcastle Theatre Royal
Newcastle Theatre Royal has a strong and varied programme this year with musicals, ballets and plays, and this week (June 6–10), it presents a deeply moving and beautifully human dramatisation of the novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, created by the same production team behind The Kite Runner, seen in Newcastle in 2018.
Many people will have read the famous award-winning novel written by Christy Lefteri and, indeed, I thought I had, but I think I’ve only dipped into it. It's about Nuri, played by Alfred Clay, who’s a beekeeper living with his artist wife Afra, performed by Roxy Farifdany, and child and working with his fellow beekeeping cousin Mustafa, played by Joseph Long, in the fine city of Aleppo, Syria and what happens when war comes.
The performance begins with Nuri wandering in his beautiful, sunlit garden. After a few seconds, he steps forward and speaks directly to us, telling us how he’s going to share his story. He recounts his life before the war and then, when war comes—we have read of the horror and complete, mindless destruction of Aleppo and indeed Syria, and the huge death toll—how he and Afra flee. It’s a story of loss, trauma, danger and fear. It’s visceral storytelling but with humanity and even humour.
Act I centres mainly on how they continue living in the city as their friends leave or are killed. The act ends with a brilliant and terrifying scene off Nuri and Afra in a tiny dinghy crossing to Turkey, finally on their way, but in the hands of people smugglers.
Act II follows them on the journey through Europe to the UK; it's desperately moving but never sentimental.
The set (and costumes) by Ruby Pugh is vivid, beautiful, inventive and innovative and changes are achieved through lighting by Ben Ormerod and splendid projections by Ravi Deprees rather than scene shifting, which gives it a magical and filmic quality; scenes shift and evolve, characters come and go. Actors often play two or three roles, heightening the idea that Nuri might be imagining things.
It's a relatively small cast; worth mentioning is Daphne Kouma as an efficient but disconnected immigration officer. In fact, these official characters have a breeziness that feels quite shocking and empty as they try to be nice and handle the paperwork and administration correctly.
The music, composed by Elaha Soroor with overall sound design by Tingying Dong, is excellent, apt and never intrusive.
It’s so well directed by Olivier Award-winning Miranda Cromwell, tight and swift, with relatively short scenes and good rhythm throughout; her experience and empathy are palpable. The analogy between the lives of the bees, the way they work and work together and the relationship to nature and what it tells us about life is poetic and a powerful message.
It is books and plays like this that should be on GCSE and A level study lists, reinvigorating schoolgoers' experiences and placing us as observer, reader at the heart of meaningful and still hopeful stories.
It seems to me that our humanity is opened wider through plays like this. I wonder how the audience felt. I forgot I was in a theatre; there were no dull moments… see it!
Reviewer: Dora Frankel