The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler adapting the novel by Christy Lefteri
Martin Dodd, UK Productions Ltd, Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
The Lowry, Salford

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The Beekeeper of Aleppo
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo describes the plight of refugees by way of a series of harrowing incidents: displacement due to war, hostility from countries where refuge is sought, mourning the loss of a child, rape, physical and mental trauma and being relocated to Yorkshire. Adapting the novel into a play with a taut two-hour running time risks either trimming details which readers might regard as essential or compressing information to the extent the emotional impact is reduced. While the adaptation avoids the former, it is less successful as a dramatic piece of work.

Initially, the approach taken by adaptors Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler seems imaginative. The titular Beekeeper, Nuri (Alfred Clay), introduces himself as an unreliable narrator, explaining his recounting the events is as much as anything an effort to exorcise them—trying to forget things of which he is ashamed. But the sheer volume of detail limits the effectiveness of this approach—only when trying to excuse his part in a lynch mob does Nuri attempt to vary the narrative, in the main this is a straightforward communication of information.

In Aleppo, despite initial misgivings, Nuri finds beekeeping to be his vocation, but the outbreak of the civil war in Syria compels him and his wife Afra (Roxy Faridany) to become refugees. The couple travel across Europe seeking refuge, but must also come to terms with personal trauma which caused psychosomatic blindness in Afar and PTSD in Nuri.

The stage set by Ruby Pugh suggests the chaos of displacement. Furniture emerges from sand dunes and beds become life rafts. There are stunning moments when the set and characters are swamped by Ravi Deepres’s film designs—panoramic scenes of bombed cities, fields of poppies or tempestuous seas.

An issue is that some scenes—bodies dumped in rivers or at schools, militia shooting children—cannot be shown so have to be described. Therefore, scenes which ought to be harrowing are reduced to descriptive dialogue which serves to make a point but has less impact than might have been anticipated.

Director Miranda Cromwell directs a play which is a collection of ideas rather than a cohesive whole. This is not to say the ideas are bad; Nuri’s effort to secure a doctor’s appointment is enacted as Alfred Clay trying to scale a mountainous sand dune. There is a sinister undertone to a scene where a somewhat naïve Nuri does not appreciate the purpose of the interview as part of his asylum application is to catch him out in telling an untruth. The overall atmosphere is dreamlike—Nuri jumping from one recollection or experience to another—but this fragmented approach limits the extent to which the audience can engage with the story.

The adaptation focuses upon demonstrating the problems faced by refugees rather than tackling the personal trauma suffered by Afar and Nuri. The grim conditions in refugee camps—including children being pimped out for sex—are shown in unflinching detail. There is a dark humour to the couple hiding from the militia and getting the giggles as Nuri breaks wind or fleeing the country seated in a van with a cow as a co-passenger. But the sheer amount of information limits the effectiveness of the play. Efforts to offer a glimmer of hope—bees are used as a metaphor for positivity—feel forced rather than inspirational.

The incident which traumatised the couple is not explained until well into the second act. During act one, therefore, the point at which Afar loses her sight is, confusingly, not apparent and Nuri’s obsession with a child refugee insufficiently disconcerting. Delaying the revelation has the unfortunate effect of allowing the audience to guess the cause of the trauma, but more significantly, by the time it is revealed, there have been so many other dreadful incidents it becomes just one more thing in a very long list. The emotional impact of the couple’s loss is not as shattering as intended.

The respectful approach taken to adapting The Beekeeper of Aleppo ensures the problems faced by refugees are depicted in a sympathetic manner, but the sheer amount of detail limits the dramatic impact of the play.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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