Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Nottingham Playhouse

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

 Adapted for the stage by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler

Based on the novel by Christy Lefteri

Directed by Miranda Cromwell

Nottingham Playhouse

Wednesday 8th February – Saturday 25th February

Christy Lefteri’s novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, was a literary phenomenon when first published in 2019. It has now been adapted by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler and is  playing at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 25th February.  

The Beekeeper of Aleppo follows the story of Nuri (Alfred Clay) and Afra (Roxy Faridany), two refugees who flee war-torn Syria in a bid to find sanctuary in England. Troubled Nuri informs the audience that he must tell his story ‘in order to live again.’ And so begins his non-linear tale where memory and reality blur, as the full extent of Nuri and Afra’s trauma is revealed to us.

Nuri is a beekeeper in Aleppo; his wife an artist. They have one son, Sami (Elham Mahyoub) and enjoy a close-knit relationship with Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa (Joseph Long) and his family. It is Mustafa who introduces Nuri to the world of bees. He learns how to tell when they are angry. (Apparently, they release a smell like bananas.) Bees also work together for the greater good, in perfect equilibrium.

Soon Nuri is employed alongside Mustafa at the apiaries as they become purveyors of the sweetest honey in all Aleppo. ‘Do you ever wonder what it would be like to live another life?’ Mustafa posits. Sadly, for both families, civil war means that they inevitably find out.

We know from the very beginning that Nuri and Afra reach England. Their story is so much more than a ‘will they or won’t they make it?’ tale. Their assigned caseworker, Lucy Fisher (Nadia Williams) tells Nuri that during his interview with the Home Office, ‘You must focus on the details of your story’ and that is what this adaptation does.

It depicts two people traumatised by horrific events who must make their way to safety, but also back to each other. They need to rediscover their connection, love and loyalty in order to move forward and find some semblance of solace in their fractured existence.

Clay, as Nuri, is a constant presence on the stage and our navigator, but can his narrative ever be fully transposed, given the extreme dangers he and Afra have encountered and the loss that they have suffered?

If this sounds bleak, there are touches of humour to punctuate the play. At a south England seaside resort, Moroccan Man is learning how to be a Brit. He wears a Union Jack t-shirt, bum-bag, trackie top and socks with sliders, a nod to modern loungewear. He ruminates on English habits whilst informing Nuri, ‘The French have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles.’ His wry observations hit the mark, interspersing a script which contains a fair amount of exposition and reportage.

There are also moments of physical theatre that I particularly enjoy. Co-ordinated dance movements, often repeated as a motif, keep characters from being static on stage and add to the interest of the performances. At times balletic, they enhance the lyrical quality of the piece.

The design by Ruby Pugh proves very adaptable given that scenes take place in differing locations under diverse conditions. An armchair built into a boulder-shaped mound is ingenious and I like the way characters are able to traverse the stage, weaving left and right, as well as up and down, to underline the sense of journeying and travel.

There is also a gargantuan backdrop allowing screen projections to be displayed to the audience. Given the recent Turkey/Syria earthquake, an image of destroyed buildings is lent extra potency, as we reflect on yet more heartache and displaced peoples within this region.

Colonies of bees are ‘A society living in complete harmony with itself.’ What this play does is to humanise the plight of refugees and compel us to reflect upon our own broken society where people have become commodities to be bought and sold at will.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo contains uncomfortable truths about our own lives and those of others, yet ultimately it is about hope. Lucy Fisher is heard to say more than once, ‘Don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.’ It this refrain that Nuri and Afra finally address as we come to the end of this ambitious and affecting play.   

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