The Arabic word ‘assassin’ refers to the Nizari Ismailis, an Islamic sect which engaged, between the 11th and 13th century, in psychological warfare and assassination of key enemies. Its politics are the core of the novel Paradise of the Assassins, written in 1899 by the Indian Abdul Halim Sharar and recently adapted into a play by writer and director Anthony Clark. Its premiere at the Tara Theatre marks the inauguration of the new 100-seat auditorium, located within an arts space that, since the 1970s, is committed to fostering the contamination between different cultures through new writing and revisited classics.
The play is set in medieval Persia, where Hussain (Asif Khan) and Zamurrud (Skye Hallam) have eloped and are heading to Mecca for the blessing of their marriage. Eight days into the journey, Zamurrud decides to reveal the real reason behind her escape, as the intention to find her brother’s burial in Alamut. After the initial disappointment, Hussain agrees to accompany her to the meadow where Musa’s bones are resting and they settle to spend the night by the grave. The morning after, Zamurrud has disappeared and Hussain believes that she is dead and gone to Paradise. In truth, the young woman is alive and prisoner of the evil Batiniyah Khurshah (Karl Seth), who has created an artificial Paradise to deceive his disciples and gain their loyalty. Thanks to a letter, Hussain learns that the only way to reunite with his wife-to-be is to join the sect of the Batiniyah and follow unconditionally the commands of the Shaikh Sharif Ali Vujoodi (Naveed Khan). Blinded by his love for Zamurrud, Hussain, follows the commands and commits many atrocities, before discovering what really hides behind the paradise of the Assassins.
The topic is strikingly resonant. The perverse philosophy adopted by the Assassins in medieval times is still historically and geographically pertinent and the clash between love and death has always been one of the most powerful combinations in theatre.
Despite these promising conditions, Anthony Clark’s adaptation of Paradise ofthe Assassins offers very little entertainment during its two-and-a-half hours. Such a long running time is rather unusual for a small theatre, especially when the set is minimal like the one designed by Matilde Marangoni, consisting of some wooden chairs, a few stones and a horizontally pivoting device of unclear function. The plot is excessively diluted by the actors who come out of their way to introduce every scene directly to the public. This causes a loss of pace and the definitive elimination of any element of surprise, worsened also by the absence of a backstage, where the performers could have moved to, before switching to different characters. In the contrary, most of the changes happen in the not-so-dark corners of the main space.
Ralph Birtwell – taking on a series of secondary roles – is the only charismatic presence on stage, whereas the opening scene, when the two lovers are on the run, is delivered without emphasis by Skye Hallam, who seems oblivious to the extent of her own grieving. There is also a certain inconsistency amongst the accents, which shift confusingly between English, Asian and Middle-Eastern, and I’m convinced about the use of the choral singing, written for the occasion by associate artist Danyal Dhondy.
Only lighting detail worth mentioning is a game of mirrors, which creates mesmerising effects with the orange floodlights, whereas remarkable attention to detail has been put into the selection of costumes and props, which are, by far, the most interesting element of the evening, together with the amazing beauty of the building itself.
In its current state, Paradise of the Assassins is a self-indulgent piece of theatre, which touches compelling topics with the tone of a school recital and would take great advantage of a further character development and some extra tightening of the plot.
Review by Marianna Meloni