An adaptation of a modern refugee’s tale, seen at Birmingham Rep by Jessica Harris.
Moving seamlessly between a bed and breakfast on England’s south coast and the story of the journey undertaken by Nuri and Afra as they leave war-torn Syria for the UK, this production of The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a highly moving portrayal of the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers.
Its many scenes and locations are knitted together by a beautifully effective soundtrack. Drawing on Arabic music, it moves from tones of poignancy to expressions of fear and dread. And it switches from conveying ominous portents to creating feelings of hope and optimism. Its role in driving the storyline forward is key.
A single set serves as the various places which Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife Afra, an artist, are forced to call ‘home’ over the course of their journey, bringing further coherence to the production. Yet the set also allows for flexibility, with digital technology used to conjure up different locations and events. The horror of the rough sea between Turkey and Greece which Nuri and Afra cross in a small rubber boat is brilliantly created by the projection of waves which crash over boulders. Traumatic events are symbolised by the frantic buzzing of bees across backdrop and actors. The war-ravaged city of Aleppo is portrayed through images of bombed-out buildings rolling across the stage.
Little by little, the play reveals the way in which refugees are treated and of how the odds are stacked against them. The disparity between the way in which Nuri and his cousin Mustafa care for their bees in Aleppo, and how they are treated themselves, is symbolic of this. As headless bodies are found in the river and young boys used as target practice by local gunmen, leaving the city is a matter of life or death. With no other choice open to them, Nuri and Afra are compelled into a journey which puts them in the hands of those who abuse, exploit and ultimately treat them as a source of income.
Officials and volunteers trying to support them are generally well meaning but, given the hostile system they work in, it is hard for them to be effective and petty rules invariably obstruct. Although Afra needs medical attention, she cannot get a doctor’s appointment because their bed and breakfast is registered as a business rather than a residential address.
The play also deals with the subject of trauma and of how it can endanger even the strongest of relationships. On the surface, it is Afra who is most traumatised by the death of their son, but as events unfold, we see that Nuri is also suffering mentally. Their psychological struggles put a distance between them which threatens their future together.
We are moved by the fate of the central characters and feel hope as they are reunited with Mustafa in England. But this is also the tale of migrants across the world, forced to flee their homelands in search of safety and sanctuary. There is no happy ending but the bees are a constant reminder of love, hope and renewal.
A brilliant adaptation of Christy Lefteri’s novel, produced with great stage-craft and a strong team of actors, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is well worth seeing. It was directed by Miranda Cromwell, co-adaptors were Nesrin Alrefaai and Matthew Spangler. It was designed by Ruby Pugh, film designer was Ravi Deepres, sound designer was Tingying Dong and composer was Elaha Sorror.
It runs at the Birmingham Rep until 17th June. For further information visit birmingham-rep.co.uk.
Pics: Manuel Harlan