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Page last updated at 06:33 GMT, Sunday, 6 April 2008 07:33 UK

Uzbek theatre's acts of defiance

By Natalia Antelava
Reporter, Crossing Continents

After the mysterious murder of its founder and director, the performances at Uzbekistan's Ilkhom independent theatre go on. But many questions are still unanswered.

Just off one of Tashkent's leafy boulevards, deep in the basement of a concrete Soviet-era building, hides a small theatre called Ilkhom, which in Uzbek means inspiration.

A fragile glass door is all that separates it from the harsh reality of one of central Asia's most repressive states.

A portrait of Mark Weil, founder and director of the Ilkhom Theatre in Uzbekistan
Mark Weil was stabbed to death in September 2007

But inside the spacious lobby and amid the dark corridors of its backstage none of the outside rules seem to apply.

For more than 30 years, Ilkhom, which was the Soviet Union's first independent theatre, produced a countless number of thought-provoking and controversial plays which forced people to question the reality that reigned beyond the theatre's door.

But last September its founder and director, Mark Weil, was killed while returning home from a rehearsal.

"This country has lost the best ambassador of good things in Uzbekistan," says Peter Burkhard, the Swiss ambassador in Tashkent who - like many - believes that clues to Mark Weil's unsolved murder lie in his plays.

"Ilkhom theatre is the only place in Tashkent where some thinking is going on. The rest of the country is just affirming, stating, showing off, but there is no reflection."

A small act of defiance

In the predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan there are no opposition parties and no free media. Foreign journalists are not welcome and different opinion is rarely tolerated. The very existence of Mark Weil's theatre was a small act of defiance.

"Several years ago, for some reason, police banned Christmas trees from all theatres and everyone obeyed. But here we just hung it upside down from the ceiling," laughs Maxim Tumenev, one of Ilkhom's actors.

Maxim, like most in Ilkhom's 30 strong troupe, is a graduate of Mark Weil's drama school. Set up in the 1990s, its rigorously competitive three year programme quickly began drawing students from far away.

"The school of Mark Weil is not just a school for actors. It was a school for life. Here, he was developing very intelligent, very sensitive, very open individuals," says Tyler Polumsky, an American from Seattle, who initially came to Uzbekistan for a three month course at Ilkhom.

Five years later he is still at the theatre, acting and coaching a new generation of students.

"Mark taught us we could not be afraid, we could not watch our backs, that everything that came to our minds had legitimacy and deserved to be tried out," adds Marina Turpisheva, who has been with the troupe for almost all of its 30 years.

Changing world

In the 1970s, when she first started rehearsing at Ilkhom, Tashkent - the Soviet Union's fourth largest city - was home to dozens of nationalities.

Being far away from Moscow's watchful eye gave Mark Weil a little more freedom to experiment and, although money was scarce and problems with the authorities were endless, Ilkhom survived and grew.

This is art and we reflect the reality around us
Maxim Tumenev, actor

Independence sent Ilkhom travelling around the world. But it failed to bring freedom to Uzbekistan.

Islam Karimov, the country's Soviet-era boss, became its president. The economy crumbled, political opponents were exiled or jailed, and thousands of people left the capital stripping Tashkent of its best and brightest.

Mark Weil watched as the cosmopolitan, vibrant place he loved shrank. As the city changed, so did his repertoire.

He started to focus more on Uzbek culture. In his plays he talked about Islam and homosexuality. He challenged convention and mocked the ridiculousness of those in power.

"This is art and we reflect the reality around us," says Maxim Tumenev.

Two actors kissing during a play at the Ilkhom Theatre in Uzbekistan (Photo: Pavel Solodkiy)
Mark Weil's later productions started to focus on Uzbek society

"It was never Mark's goal to be political or to oppose anyone. He simply reflected the reality around us."

Mark Weil's murder is surrounded by mystery.

According to sources in Tashkent, shortly before his death Mark Weil was threatened by the security services and told to soften the content of one of his plays. He refused.

His murder coincided with the re-election of president Islam Karimov, who ran for office despite the fact that his last constitutional term had already expired.

Across the country security was on high alert and ready to prevent any sort of outburst of public discontent ahead of the vote.

The investigation into Mark's killing focused heavily on his personal life but the perpetrators of his murder have never been found.

Except for a short obituary, his death received no coverage in the state controlled media.

The Uzbek embassy in London did not reply to the BBC's request for comment.

The show goes on

At Ilkhom they are now learning to live without their director. A core group of actors are running the theatre, looking for money and guest directors from overseas to stage new plays. The shows are going on, as are lessons, rehearsals and tours.

Mark Weil during rehearsal (Photo: Alexander Rayevsky)
No matter what happens we are opening the season tomorrow
Mark Weil, director

But as busy and upbeat as they try to sound, the future looks neither bright nor certain.

Mark Weil's last production was his biggest project.

The Oresteia - a trilogy of Greek plays by Aeschylus - was a tale of death and blood in which a hugely creative fusion of verse, rock music, stunning costumes, and video art put across an unmistakable message. Blood can only generate more blood.

As they finished the last rehearsal of the Oresteia Mark Weil, tired and frustrated, told his actors "no matter what happens, we are opening the season tomorrow."

That was 6 September and later that night he was stabbed to death outside his house.

On 7 September his defiant troupe opened the new season.

"I don't know how we played that night. And I don't have words to describe it" says Marina Turpisheva

"All throughout the rehearsals Mark kept telling us that we did not feel the depth of the tragedy of the Oresteia. Well, on the 7th, we felt the depth of the tragedy".

Crossing Continents reports on Ilkhom on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 3 April at 1100 BST, repeated Monday 7 April at 2030 BST.

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01 Apr 08 |  Crossing Continents
Country profile: Uzbekistan
24 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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