The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Nasrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler, adapted from the book by Christy Leferti
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Theatre Royal Plymouth
From the opening scene, you know that Nuri and his wife Afra make it to England from their Syrian home, ravaged by the 2011 civil war. But the question hovering over the story of the Beekeeper of Aleppo is, do they make it emotionally? And will they be able to learn to live, and love, again?
Christy Leferti’s 2019 novel follows the young couple’s struggles as they journey from Aleppo to hopefully join Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa, in Yorkshire. Unrelentingly harrowing, Nuri and Afra watch their lives crumble under the bombs of the civil war. But it is not just the buildings that suffer, but also the families, culture and humanity of those pushed to their limits under the pressure of violence.
This stage adaptation, by Nasrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler, stays close to Leferti’s original book. The warm evenings of the Friday dinners among extended family, arguing about pomegranates and pistacchios, give a glimpse into the idyllic prewar life of the cousins. Yet the mounds of sand, present throughout in Ruby Pugh’s set, are a constant reminder of the fragility of this idyll and how nature threatens and reclaims the lives they leave behind.
We follow the couple’s emotional struggles as they encounter each horror of their journey. It is not just the practical and physical hurdles of crossing borders through illicit routes and transport that are played out in front of us, but also the nightmarish encounters with the people who exploit them and those around them. The chilling banality of immigration and refugee officials’ rules and protocols leave the audience bewildered and ashamed. The trauma of the couple alone is enough, but along the way, they (and we) witness and share more as we hear the grim stories of their fellow refugees.
The three major characters of Nuri, Afra and Mustafa played by Alfred Clay, Roxy Faridany and Joseph Long keep the complex, flawed characters totally relatable and sympathetic without straying into mawkish. Long especially has fun doubling up as a Moroccan ‘Geezer’ trying to teach Nuri how to be English.
Tingying Dong’s evocative, nostalgic soundscape keeps the emotional connections to the home they left behind. Projections across the backdrop and along the mounds of sand on stage at first portray the bees, but then magnify the bomb-damaged Aleppo they leave behind or the thrashing waves of the seas they encounter on their travels. At first, Nuri stays strong for his wife, but the strain finally shatters his mind, memory and reality become blurred and the set is stripped.
Despite the couples’ unrelentingly harrowing, emotional journey, Nuri is sustained by the hope of being reunited with his cousin, the comfort of life lived among extended family and the possibilities of a return of Afra’s health and a life of beekeeping and nature. For these and most people, the true tragedy is that people just want to be left alone to get on with their lives in peace.
Reviewer: Joan Phillips