Based on Christy Lefteri’s 2019 international bestseller, Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation of The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a glimmering snapshot of the trauma and loss associated with forced displacement and sharply examines the effects on both the mental and physical health of its survivors, as well as on relationships. The production hums with necessity and freshness and is a welcome departure from the trope of asylum seeker stories which pivot on the outcome of perilous journeys over strange and unknown seas. The Beekeeper of Aleppo instead examines impact and aftermath. In spite of director Miranda Cromwell’s fresh take on the refugee crisis, though, this production lacks finesse and cohesion, which dampens its ability to truly resonate with its audiences.
Cromwell’s production opens with an interrogation, as Syrian born couple Nuri (Alfred Clay) and Afra (Roxy Faridany) attempt to seek asylum in the UK. In flashbacks, we see the couple enjoying their past life in their adored Aleppo, along with Uncle Mustafa (Joseph Long), who first inspired Nuri’s love of bees. Glimpses of the family’s picturesque and idyllic homeland are soon contrasted with flashes of a city in turmoil as the ensuing conflict intensifies and they are forced to leave Syria. Aggressive border officials, a Home Office that routinely fail to provide the right paperwork, and a slimy people smuggler punctuate the intensity and challenges of Nuri and Afra’s harrowing voyage to England.
The set, designed by Ruby Pugh, is truly stunning and is a highlight of the production. A landscape of sand dunes consumes the domestic space once enjoyed by Nuri and Afra and serves as a permanent and painful reminder of all that they have lost. As the production plays out, Nuri’s memories, much like the dusty armchair and sand-coloured hatch, are consumed by the sands of time, which places an increasing strain on his ability to care for and express his love for his wife. Whilst the visual dramaturgy is simple in its design, it is successful in its aim to temporally transport both Nuri, Afra, and the audience from Syria, to Greece, and England. It is beautifully reflective of their once strong and loving relationship slowly slipping away. Closing moments of a new-found intimacy feel more delicate and powerful as a result.
There is a slight clunkiness to the production however that underscores the overall potency of Nuri’s story. It is the lack of cohesion that prevents this production from fulfilling its potential as an affecting adaptation, which aggrandises Lefteri’s success. One of the leading sources of this, is the choreography, which feels laboured and jarring. This is particularly apparent in ensemble moments which involve the entire cast, for instance, in the sea-crossing sequence, in which Mohammed, a young boy that Nuri befriends, is thrown from the boat. The lack of choreographic polish in key moments such as this led to my subsequent and unfortunate withdrawal from the otherwise powerful narrative. With an account as torturous as Nuri’s, I desperately wanted to feel the effect more acutely.
For an audience with a limited knowledge of the problems faced by refugees, this production would be a good introduction. The context of the emergent Syrian and Turkish earthquake crisis makes this devastating story feel all the more human, and benefits the overall desire of the production to educate and inform. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a play that buzzes with latent potential, that is unfortunately, never quite reached.