The Moroccan Geezer, played by Joseph Long, left, talking to Alfred Clay's Nuri with wife Afra asleep behind.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Birmingham Rep


It is not unusual to find yourself with an emotional investment in good productions, we feel for characters, we share their happiness and sadness, their triumphs and disasters, loves found and lost, but this is different.

This stage adaptation of Christy Lefteri’s bestselling novel opens a window just a chink to give a glimpse of a world we are unlikely to ever experience, a world of helplessness, of hopelessness, where life is cheap and the words of Robbie Burns about man’s inhumanity to man still ring true almost 250 years on.

We feel for the characters portrayed on stage and all the legion of characters in the world they represent. The protagonist is Nuri, played by Alfred Clay. He gives Nuri an innocence, a naivety which hardly prepares him for the world he finds himself in.

Nuri is a beekeeper in Syria’s second city, Aleppo, working with his older cousin Mustafa, played by Joseph Long. Mustafa is a philosopher, happier dealing with, or at least more sure of bees than people. “People are not like bees”, he tells Nuri, “they don't think about the greater good.”.

Each week the two families meet for a meal, they are just like families in Britain, even closer than many, life is peaceful, friendly, comfortable and safe – until the brutal Syrian civil war breaks out. Towns and neighborhoods are bombed and destroyed, people killed indiscriminately, their only crime being in range and alive.

Mustafa is the first to leave, a marked man, his bee hives destroyed, he flees to find his relatives in England. As their world disintegrates in dust and flames, Nuri finally persuades his wife Afra, convincingly played on Press night by Daphne Kouma, to leave and they head off on their long, dangerous and expensive journey to Britain.

It is a journey not helped by the fact Afra is blind, a blindness that came on suddenly after a bomb blast they day before they fled and a condition portrayed with great skill by Kouma in a lovely, gentle performance.

There is some confusion in this adaptation by Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler as we jump from the happy family meals in Aleppo, to clandestine journeys to the Turkish border, to a rubber boat to Greece, to refugee camps, living in a crowed park in Athens, and then a bedsit somewhere in Britain seeking asylum, with asylum interviews, meetings with case workers, doctor's receptionist, doctors . . . all mixed in.

The constant journeying backwards and forwards though time can be followed but it makes the narrative fragmented, breaking any flow, but perhaps that was the intention, there is no flow in Nuri’s story or the stories of those like him.

His breaking the fourth wall and expressing his thoughts to the audience does fill in gaps and keeps us on track though.


boat people

Nuri and Afra join other refugees crammed on an unsafe, overloaded rubber boat for the six hour journey from Turkey to Greece

Arriving in Britain after a tortuous journey Nuri and his wife end up in a bedsit, a run down waiting room while their future is decided. They have come across robbers, drug runners, sexual predators and the army of lost souls who would rather be safe at home than seeking refuge in a foreign and alien country.

Awaiting an asylum decision Nuri is befriended by a Moroccan refugee, who is learning about English culture, so calls everyone geezer and drinks tea with milk. He is a cheery soul, full of fun, which is perhaps a shield against his own story of deepest despair.

And here Nuri also runs into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the Home Office asylum system, but at least he and his family have arrived before we introduce the added bonus of a free trip to Rwanda for asylum seekers.

The emotion here, sadly, is shame, shame and sadness that we can treat people so desperate, so traumatised and so unfortunate with such contempt.

The play may be based on a novel, but Lefteri has based that on the stories she was told, or the personal tales of trauma, the depths of despair she encountered in two years working as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Athens.

The characters may be composites but there is an authenticity, a steady, recurring theme to the journeys to escape civil wars, the Taliban, autocratic dictatorships and the like.

There are moments of light, as when Arabic speaking Dr Faruk, played on Press night by Lily Demir, helps Nuri, who we discover is traumatised far more than we knew, slowly we find why, much as he loves Afra, he has drifted apart from her emotionally, escaping and hiding in his own world.

And Dr Faruk, married to an Iraqi, talks to Afra and slowly unravels the cause of her blindness.

It is not all gloom and despair, in the pre-war Syria the families are happy, laugh and have fun and even in the bedsit the Moroccan geezer provides us with smiles and comic moments, as does the eager, orphaned little boy Mohammed, (Elahm Mahyoub) Nuri takes under his wing along the way in Turkey and Greece. In the garden of the bedsit there are bees, and as Mustafa told us” Where there are bees there is hope and life.”

The set (Ruby Pugh) is a nondescript sand coloured wall, like so many Middle Eastern homes surrounding sand dunes which double as living room, an Athens’ park, a British beach, rubber dingy, refugee camps, all a monotonal shade of sand, helped by video projections (Ravi Deepres) of bees, seas, rivers and, most telling, video of the devastation of Syria. There was a tiny gesture at the end, probably unnoticed by most, as Nuri and Mustafa reunite and Afra’s sight is starting to return when, on the flat sand landscape of dunes a clump of scarlet flowers has appeared. Life at last renewing.

Directed by Miranda Cromwell, this is a powerful piece, with much to say. No stage production can really portray the horrors of wars, of dictatorships, of oppression, of senseless deaths, killing for no reason, constant fear for life, leaving home, life and hope behind to become a refugee. A play can only make you think, and this fine cast and production, certainly do that. To 17-06-23

Roger Clarke


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