It is Monowitz, one of Auschwitz’s three main camps during the Second World War, that provides the stark and uncomfortable setting for the The Beekeeper. The play is inspired by a combination of writer Michael Ashton’s own stint in prison, an experience alien to many of us, and his fascination with the common bee, a creature familiar to all of us. The two themes merge to provide an intriguing blend and create the parallel that lies at the heart of the play’s startling originality.
Whilst the horrific events of the mid-20th century’s Holocaust are incredibly well-documented, I am sure I am not alone in being saddened and disgusted whenever I am served a reminder of the sheer humiliation and cruelty one set of human beings became capable of bestowing on another. This is, of course, what The Beekeeper is all about and the play does not fail to hit hard; it's an intense and thought-provoking 90 minutes.
However, the slant is somewhat different to what we are accustomed to seeing and reading. In the writer’s own words there are no "bodies being fed into furnaces and whips cracking". Instead, the spotlight is firmly on a single corner of the camp where the prisoner Stressler resides in isolation. Believed to be a conspirator by the other prisoners, he tenderly nurtures a hive of bees which serves not only as a distraction from his miserable, pain-filled existence but as a supply of honey for Nazi officers, in particular one Richard Baer.
Whilst honey and royal jelly provide the first tenuous point of communication between Baer and Stressler, over time a strangely complicated and somewhat sinister relationship forms. It is this unusual version of interaction between perpetrator and victim that interests Ashton and that is brought sharply into focus. As the atrocities of the camp continue outside the four walls of Victoria Spearing’s fittingly claustrophobic set, Stressler and Baer engage in what can only be described as a battle of wills whereby power and fear shift unpredictably back and forth.
Robert Harding’s Baer is a suitably commanding and charismatic presence, towering over his victim and barking his lines in a clipped version of received pronunciation which contrasts sharply with the Jewish man’s brilliantly authentic accent. Whilst the interaction between the two is usually nothing short of gripping, at times there is the feeling that director and producer Adrian McDougall could do more to heighten the inevitable feelings of tension and foreboding on stage. Eliot Giuralarocca puts in a sympathetic, compelling and deeply human performance as Stressler, whose unwavering resoluteness and resilience mirror that of the bees he loves. Chris Westgate as Stressler’s unfortunate, ration-bringing friend, Kolbe, and Spencer Cummins as the archetypal Jew-hating German officer, Sergeant Beck, provide engaging support throughout.
This is important and provocative drama which will continue to tug at the memory and undoubtedly have a long life beyond the London fringe.