Paradise of the Assassins

Anthony Clark, based on the book by Abdul Halim Sharar
Theatre Accord in association with Tara Arts
Tara Arts

Naveed Khan as Shareef Ali Vujoodi (centre) & Karl Seth, Asif Khan (Hussein), Skye Hallam, Tripti Tripuraneni, Rina Fantania and Ralph Birtwell as his followers Credit: Tristram Kenton
Asif Khan as Hussein and Skye Hallam as Zamurrud Credit: Tristram Kenton
Asif Khan as Hussein (centre) and Ralph Birtwell and Mitesh Soni as disciples of Shareef Ali Vujoodi Credit: Tristram Kenton

Lucknow-born Abdul Halim Sharar’s novel Firdous e Bareen, written in Urdu and published in 1899, is named after the Paradise Garden of Hasan-i-Sabah and his band of Hashshashin in their fortress at Alamut in the mountains of northern Persia.

It tells of a young man who is lured there. It is fiction, not a documentary account of the medieval sect and its leader, popularly known as the Old Man of the Mountain, but, in exploring their story from view of someone captured by them and made to be one of them, it exposes the falsity of their promise of Paradise.

It was written over a century ago about medieval assassins but its contemporary relevance is obvious and, watching director Anthony Clark’s adaptation, you cannot help but think of today’s recruits to terrorism.

Hasan-i-Shaban established his Batiniyah version of Islam (and his Paradise Garden) at Alamut in the 11th century when Shi’a Ismaili were ready to revolt against the rule of the Sunni Seljuks. Already there was political and doctrinal conflict in Islam, but this story begins nearly 200 years later in 1252 CE, the 650th year of Hegira.

It is the middle of winter but, despite the season, Hussain and Zamurrud, a young couple of Sunni noble stock, are making the Hajj to Mecca. In fact it is a cover for an elopement for they are secretly engaged and plan to get married on the journey. But, though Zamurrud does want to marry Hussain, she has tricked him into it so that he will come with her to look for the grave of her murdered brother Musa and offer appropriate prayers there.

By the grave of Musa, whom Zamurrud believes had visited Paradise, they encounter Batiniyah who contrive to make Hussain drink drugged wine. When he wakes from his stupor, his beloved has gone and her name has been added to her brother’s grave.

Zamurrud, held in the Alamut “Paradise”, is forced to write letters used to recruit Hussain to join them and become an assassin as his way of being reunited with her in Paradise. The promise of happiness puts devout Hussain in the hands of the leader of this extreme sect and to follow his instructions to murder.

Following Sharar’s original, this doesn’t only expose the methods of extremists but sometimes questions the validity of all religion; this sect of assassins is not the only one that have sought to kill those who preach a different faith.

At first, Anthony Clark directs his play at such a cracking pace that makes it difficult to take in all the information with which it is loaded; Asif Khan’s Hussain scarcely has time to think, but his relationship with Skye Hallam’s Zamurrud is well established. Since he was six, the moon and the stars have shone in her eyes. Despite his tolerant Sunni beliefs, his need to be with her drives him to accept assassination assignments even of his own Imams. It is difficult to reconcile his earlier questioning with his gullibility when offered his particular Paradise.

There is little real development in any of the characters—they are mouthpieces for argument or tools in the plot—but in Rina Fatania as a rather surprising Houri and a Mongol princess there is personality in plenty. There is a dignified Khurshah, leader of the Batiniyah, from Karl Seth, perhaps he really does believe what he is saying, but Naveed Khan’s Sheikh Ali Vujoodi, who commands his inner circle, is more conventionally evil, however much he may argue that the duplicity of his actions is in the service of the Faith.

Ralph Birtwell adds a touch of humour as a drunken eunuch and, like Mitesh Soni’s Batiniyah disciple and Tripti Tripuraneni’s captive houri, doubles other contrasting roles.

Matilde Marangoni’s setting, in Tara’s ravishing new theatre, has copper discs rising to mark day or night over its red earth floor, with a scattering of rocks and simple furniture and traditional looking costume, which gains much from Amy Mae’s imaginative lighting.

Spoken scene settings give a Brechtian edge. The play is full of discussion, letter reading and not a great deal of action, the bloody business acted out to spoken description. It could feel heavy-going were it not lightened by the music and songs of Danyal Dhondy, full of atmosphere and feeling.

Is brainwashing so easy? It is a question you can’t help asking and, given the right circumstances, it would seem so. This picture of religious indoctrination used as a tool of political power is an uneven but a very topical play to open Tara’s new season in its reinvented home.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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