Paradise Of The Assassins is the first production in the newly refurbished Tara Theatre in Earlsfield south London. It’s a superb arts hub that has had a sweeping £2.7 million makeover consisting of a sparkling 100 seater auditorium, a rehearsal/workshop space, a café/bar and even an outdoor patio garden. It’s been beautifully put together with doors and architraves imported from India combined handsomely with the original Edwardian brickwork.
It makes sense for this multicultural theatre to put on as its inaugural production a play based on a hundred-year- old novel by Abdul Halim Sharar set in 13th century Persia but judging by the fairly sparse attendance on the second night, it might prove to be a hard sell.
The play is basically a love story set in turbulent times. Hussain and Zamurrud are eloping and on their way to Mecca to do Hajj when they’re waylaid by a group of brigands and misfits and Zamurrud goes missing, presumed dead and the somewhat convoluted plot develops from there.
Hussain will do anything to see Zamurrud again and his faith as a Sunni is severely tested by the leaders of the fundamentalist Batiniyah sect who convince him he can see Zumurrud in paradise if he does exactly what he’s told and turns from a gentle, devoted man into an obedient assassin – a transition that happens a little too easily to be completely believable.
There is great resonance in the play with events happening in the world today as the assassins of the title are turned into unquestioning, blood thirsty killers with the promise of virgins in paradise as their reward. This is what I believe is happening now and there were times during the evening when I as a non-Muslim wondered what Muslims would think of this type of portrayal. One of the problems with the play is that it’s long with a running time of nearly two and a half hours (including an interval) and could easily have been trimmed by at least thirty minutes without losing any of the plot. Anthony Clark the writer also directs and maybe separating these two roles would have led to some judicious editing. The last half an hour, in particular, is almost pantomimic and jars against the rest of the piece. This was summed up when Hussain was given a costume in order to disguise himself as a woman and said “I hope it fits”!
There’s a lot of exposition in the play and often the places and names meld into one making it hard to follow the plot. There are a number of long speeches of religious rhetoric which don’t help clarify things – at times it’s just too complicated for its own good and you could sense the audience were finding it hard to concentrate on what was going on.
On the plus side, the love story at the core is very convincing and Asif Khan is excellent as Hussain, giving the character the vulnerability and perplexed emotions that make the audience empathise with him and understand the existential angst he’s going through. Special mention must also be given to Ralph Birtwell who plays a number of parts – all brilliantly. The rest of the eight-strong cast were also first-rate as was Anthony Clark’s direction. The set is simple but superbly illuminated by Amy Mae’s lighting design which gives the production an extra layer of atmosphere as does Danyal Dhondy’s music and songs.
Paradise of The Assassins is an ambitious, almost Shakespearian grand adventure for such an intimate space but on the whole, the company carry it off – it just could have done with a bit of pruning to make it even better.
Review by Alan Fitter
Paradise of the Assassins
by Anthony Clark
based on the book by Abdul Halim Sharar
An adventure story of love, faith and betrayal.
Under Persian skies, in the valley of the Alburz mountains, Hussain falls asleep with his young love, Zamurrud. He awakes to find a letter perched on her grave. She is in Paradise.
To be reunited, must Hussain accept the Assassins creed?
Written a century ago by the famous Lucknow polymath and communist, Abdul Halim Sharar, this compelling story is adapted by award-winning director Anthony Clark and told with dynamic theatricality for our times.
Paradise of the Assassins
Theatre Accord in association with Tara Arts
356 Garratt Ln, London SW18 4ES
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Thurs 15 September – Sat 8 October 2016