The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Coventry Belgrade


This is a first-class staging of a first-class play based on a first-class, award-winning recent book. Christy Leftieri’s best-selling novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo (2019) has already picked up top tributes both here and on New York’s Broadway. It preceded a clutch of acclaimed novels: Songbirds, Refugee Tales, A Book of Fire.  

She is the child of Cypriot refugees; she herself has worked with refugees in Athens, where part of this immensely powerful story takes place. Her empathy with the plight of those evading conflict – the whole point is that these are Syrians around whom everything – like the Ukraine today – has been smashed and destroyed, is profound. Including their young son, Sami, killed in their own garden in the heartless bombing, their grief for whom plays the major role in the later stages of the story.

The adaptation for the stage is by Nesrin Alrefaai, visiting lecturer in Arabic Studies at the LSE (London School of Economics) and Matthew Spangler (adapter of The Kite Runner, a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic). The producers are UK Productions Ltd. And the production, both forceful and moving, hails from the ever-inventive Nottingham Playhouse. It’s also in association with Liverpool’s two main originating theatres.  

The music (Elaha Soroor) is atmospheric, beautiful and beneficial. The set is ingenious, generating a feel of middle eastern desert and destruction alike, functions superbly, lit by the always splendid Ben Ormerod. Notable was a split left-right between pastel green and more regular fawn. Although a trapdoor only serves one occasion, other devices, doors, a forlorn bed, provide all that’s needed for the vivid action, which never lets up for a second.   

  bee cast

Roxy Faridany, as Afra, Alfred Clay as Nuri and Joseph Long as Mustafa

From his very first words in Miranda Cromwell’s masterly production, the main character, Nuri (Alfred Clay) – the beekeeper of the title, gives an utterly assured performance, beautifully conceived, finely observed, deeply sympathetic, and understanding of the desperate, confused, and perpetually horrendous condition Nuri finds himself in.

 His wife, Afra (Roxy Faridani), is an artist, although this might have been explored in the staging, and largely isn’t. Essentially she is a dependant, her health uncertain, but her character such that she is the rock on which Nuri depends. She cannot take a lead, but she keeps him on the right path and prevents him in his exasperation making errors – so easy to fall into when the whole world seems against them and life is genuinely destitute. They have had to leave everything behind. They have no worldly goods to carry with them.

That world is one of officials, border personnel, medics, those who mean well but are so oblivious to the negative effect they can have (Nuri: “We’re not your enemies. Are you our enemies?”…”You often can’t tell if they’re being polite or rude.”) Daphne Kouma and Nadia Williams supply these ancillary roles. Williams in particular has the most brilliant range of faces and gestures, fast-shifting characterisations such that for me her staggering talent almost stole the show. Pink-head dressed and pink-wrapped, “My name is Andronis(s)i [?Angelika], but I’m not Greek.” Her huddling up to Afra brings a touching feel – as the boy does with Nuri – of how someone close can bring security even amid nightmares.

The bees – in Syria they even had a honey-shop of their own - are ever-present, or at least recurrent, one of the shattering projections on the central, quasi house-front part of the set. The invention of these projections (Ravi Deepres) seemed endless. Lights that pirouette before our eyes. Horrible silhouettes of thugs; scarlet blasts of war; or conversely a rapid surge through red poppy (rose-?) fields. Terrifying Aegean Sea storms. One of the most awesome is an overview of the whole historic city of Aleppo - Syria’s second largest - ruined, flattened, ravaged – which then moves to a close up (including their gutted home? ) .

Nuri – for whom March 2011, the start of the Syrian civil war, brings the breakup of their peaceful lives – is both unimaginative and imaginative. He lacks the nous to deal with certain situations – is courageous and tries his best but is also helpless. He yearns to pick pistachio nuts, and eat pistachio ice-cream (actually he could do both in Greece). He’s obsessed even on the endless journey, with his buzzing charges: “It’s my job to protect the bees”.

cast bees

But his imagining plays riot in one central way. On their cross-border journey through Turkey and Greece – most likely the holding camp on Lesbos, and then Athens – he stumbles across a lost boy, Mohammed, whom he adopts for a period (“All stories are true, in their way”), but who then gets mislaid. It becomes clear, though not immediately, that he increasingly envisages this boy, who is likewise wearing red top and blue shorts, for his own. He’s afraid of water. He likes chocolate. The vision – like a resurrection, (till Mohammed gets – or elects to be - separated) gives him calm and a kind of safeguarding. He protects the boy; yet really the shrewd little boy looks after him.  

The boy (both boys, Mohammed and the dead Sami) is played brilliantly by Elam Mahyoub. It’s easy to slip out of young boy reactions and gestures into ones that are, if not exaggerated or girlish, not quite right for a boy. That never happens. Her movements and responses, even little twitches, are all authentic. The voice serves extremely well as a boy’s. No reservations at all. Just admiration for her skill and creativity.   

Much of the humour, but also the commonsense bordering on wisdom, comes from the uncle, Mustafa, a beekeeper himself – hence an inspiration to Nuri – and grandfatherly figure to the family, above all to the dead Sami (whose mobile phone he keeps confiscating in an avuncular way).  

What a fabulous piece of acting this is from Joseph Long; clever, insightful, finessed, full of wry detail and astute observations. “Have some coffee. Or maybe you prefer tea: English tea!”) It is he who makes the journey to England successfully, and ends up restarting the beekeeping in Yorkshire (“where thanks to the rain everything is green”) – hence the flowers for the bees. He’s the philosopher (“Do you ever think what it would be like to live a different life?” Nuri has no such idea; yet he is already doing so. He speaks his mind, whereas Nuri, although doing so, is hesitant.

“England is the most expensive place on earth to get to: Sweden – Germany…” Latterly in Athens they acquire a friend who is a kind of tempter/corrupter. We see how vulnerable Nuri is to offers of ‘help’ making the transition across Europe: Italy (more storms) - even the border with Macedonia is closed.

The text is dotted with soliloquies: Nuri; the wife; the uncle; the little boy. The delivery by them all is superb. When Afra – blinded but gradually regaining some vision – what a touching shared moment that realization is - retorts “It’s you who’s blind”, she hits on a home truth. This is a play full of home truths. That’s why it’s so stunningly good. So perfect. So on target. So inspiring.

Roderic Dunnett


The Beekeper of Aleppo moves on to Leeds Playhouse (31 May-3 June), Theatre Royal, Newcastle (6-10 June), Birmingham Repertory Theatre (13-17 June), Theatre Royal, Plymouth (20-24 June) and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (27 June-1 July).

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