Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler, after Christy Lefteri
Nottingham Playhouse / UK Productions Ltd
The Lowry, Salford
April 18-22, 2023: 2 hrs 20 mins
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a very good stage adaptation of the novel by Christy Lefteri, performed on a single set that serves for many places and many lands, and telling the story of Nuri, his wife Afra and his cousin Mustafa, who flee from Syria at the height of the civil war and seek a new home in England.
That doesn’t make it the greatest piece of dramaturgy in the world, but the great virtue of Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler’s play, in Miranda Cromwell’s production, is that it doesn’t try to be too clever.
We know from the outset that the immigrants make it in the end, and the intermixed time-frames of their asylum-seeking journey are easy enough to follow from Syria to Turkey, Turkey to Greece and on through Europe until they get here.
Mustafa and Nuri had found a way of life in their old homeland as beekeepers and suppliers of honey, and their dream is to take up that former trade in Britain and make a new life from it. The ordered life of the beehive becomes a symbol of the social harmony and human integration they once knew and desperately need to find again.
The message of the play lies in its portrayals of the experiences of refugees – not just the dangers of war and homelessness, but the absurdities of “processing”, whether by earnest volunteers and do-gooders or cold and antipathetic immigration officers.
The points it makes are all important and need to be made, but the sheer horror and trauma endured by these powerless victims of the empowered so outweigh the problems of bureaucracy that the play becomes a study of human suffering, rather than political argument.
Afra loses her sight in the bombing in Syria and we don’t know whether she’ll ever get it fully back; Nuri loses part of his mind after their son has gone missing and tries to compensate by protecting a child immigrant on the journey; Mustafa seems to have had it relatively easy, but are his dreams ever going to work in practice?
The central three (Alfred Clay as Nuri, Roxy Faridany as Afra and Joseph Long as Mustafa) are all very accomplished portrayals, and they’re assisted by a gifted team who take on multiple supporting roles. The set, with its two large heaps of sand that do duty for both the literal starting point of the story and its metaphorical stages that follow, is effective (designer Ruby Pugh); the film projections (Ravi Deepres) are powerful, and the music (Elaha Soroor) haunting.
But there’s still a sense that the philosophy that might be travelling in this play hasn’t quite made it to its destination – perhaps because the dynamics of drama are different from the pace of a novel.
“People are not like bees: they have no sense of the common good,” we’re told. But bees haven’t either – they act from instinct.
“Trust in nature” as the moral of the tale sounds a bit like “Use the Force, Luke” or “Have faith”: is that all?
More info and tickets here