The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Theatre Royal Newcastle
Until Saturday 10 June 2023
The bestselling chronicle of a refugee couple’s physical and emotional journey to a form of redemption is adapted into a moving drama, well performed by an engaging cast.
Adapting Christy Lefteri’s novel or the stage was an ambitious undertaking by Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. The story ranges over several countries on its way from Syria to Britain, through numerous characters and involving a great deal of loss, hardship and emotional anguish. Nesrin Alrefai and Matthew Spangler, the playwrights, say in the programme that they wanted to steer a path between the demonisation of refugees and the reductive approach of painting them as idealised victims. It is fair to say that they have broadly achieved that, though they use broader strokes when depicting the attitudes and language of the state representatives encountered on reaching the UK.
The play starts in Britain so there is no suspense about the physical journey’s end but the point of the play is whether Alfred Clay’s Nuri and his wife Afra, played by Roxy Faridany, can endure as a couple and recover from the emotional consequences of their odyssey.
After their contented and successful life in Syria is destroyed by conflict, and after Afra has contracted psychogenic blindness, Nuri and Afra escape to Turkey with the help of the first of a chain of harsh and unpleasant people smugglers. We are unclear as to what has happened to their only child. From there they take a boat to Greece and are stranded in an Athens park until they enter into some underworld dealing to fund their onward trip to the UK. The incidents that occur here have a profound effect on their already strained relationship. Along the way, Nuri befriends a small boy who later unaccountably disappears.
Nuri’s cousin and business partner, Mustafa, is already in the UK, ending up in Yorkshire where he is able to resume his beekeeping life. A troubled Nuri has begun to lose his grip on reality, is distanced from Afra and avoids contacting Mustafa because he cannot come to terms with what they have endured and what he feels he has become.
Having survived the exile from his homeland, can he make his way back from this more profound, self-imposed, emotional exile?
The central characters are well-drawn, and Clay gives a convincing portrayal of Nuri’s descent into despair. Faridany’s performance is also strong and nuanced. Joseph Long makes an excellent job of portraying two contrasting characters; the warm, nature-loving Mustafa and the gently comic Moroccan man who is enthusiastically grasping the British way of life and its language.
Nadia Williams’ charismatic portrayal of Angeliki and Aram Marsourian’s sinister Fotakis are highlights of the strong ensemble’s multiple roles in support.
An effectively versatile set by Ruby Pugh, music by Elaha Soroor and Tingying Dong’s sound design are all essential to the flow of the narrative, as is Ben Ormerod’s lighting design.
Miranda Cromwell’s direction is fluid and helps flesh out the parade of characters, largely avoiding caricature.
Overall, the characters are engaging, and the production stops short of being harrowing, despite portraying terrible loss and suffering. Somehow, it does not seem to be as gripping as it might have been but perhaps that is because of the lack of jeopardy in the structure, which replicates that of the source work.
This is an incredibly timely piece of theatre, fleshing out the human experience of the refugee in a well-researched and believable way. In a country that has allowed itself to be manipulated into blaming all its troubles on those escaping conflict rather than those who are actually in control, the human story needs to be told now, more than ever.
Review: Jonathan Cash
The Beekeeper of Aleppo plays Newcastle Theatre Royal Tuesday 6 – Saturday 10 June 2023. Tickets can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.