Mark Weil

Founder of Ilkhom theatre company
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The Independent Online

Mark Yakovlevich Weil, theatre director: born 25 January 1952; artistic director, Ilkhom Theatre 1976-2007; died Tashkent 7 September 2007.

To be a dissident in a ruthless dictatorship requires great courage. To be a theatre director operating to international acclaim requires great talent. Courage and talent were just two of the qualities which Mark Weil, founder in 1976 of the Ilkhom theatre company in Tashkent, personified. He was a man who lived and died for his art, and whose art played a part in a crucial moment of world transformation.

Weil was only 55 when he was viciously murdered last week, and a youthful 55 at that. It was difficult to believe that it was a full 30 years since he had started Ilkhom. He was immensely proud of the fact that this was the first independent theatre company in the entire Soviet Union. Their artistic freedom, performance of previously banned works and tackling of social issues made them one of the sensations of the late Soviet Union. It is hard to imagine now, but the lively, vividly cosmopolitan Tashkent, the Soviet Union's fourth largest city, was initially a haven of intellectual ferment as central control weakened. Ilkhom started making regular visits to the capital and became the toast of Moscow intellectual circles in the late 1980s.

As Weil described it to me, Ilkhom endured the irony of being part of the destruction of the Soviet Union, only to be plunged into the even greater gloom and tyranny of Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan. But by then Weil, a native Uzbek of remote German-Jewish stock, had built up the formidable international reputation that enabled Ilkhom to continue to flourish as a tiny, bright and incredibly unlikely beacon of light in Tashkent. They played to great acclaim on every continent, their last appearance in the UK being a sell-out run of White White Black Stork, adapted from the unfinished manuscript of Abdulla Kadyri, at the Barbican last year.

In White White Black Stork, as with other recent productions, Vigil With a Pomegranate and Imitation of the Koran, Weil was still using his theatre to tackle challenging questions of Uzbek society – unemployment, drug addiction, freedom, homosexuality, religion – which are absolutely forbidden from discussion both in Uzbekistan's 100 per cent state-controlled media and in public.

I had a long talk with Weil and his family afterwards and found him less optimistic, his cares heavier, than ever before. He was, against my entreaties, determined to stay in Tashkent and battle it out, despite the spiralling increase in regime repression.

Weil's style was always in public to deny breezily that he faced any particular problems, and to try to shelter everyone else – his company, his family, his loyal audiences – from them. A theatre director in Seattle, home town to Weil's family, in paying shocked tribute to Weil, said "He always said the theatre never had any enemies." That was indeed a line he frequently used in public, part of the bolstering of confidence and reputation on which he survived so long against all odds. What he said in private was very different.

He would avoid direct criticism of the regime, but allow his art to talk for him Typical of his style was the television documentary The End of an Era: Tashkent. It focused on Tashkent's monumental architecture, showing the change of monster iconography in bronze from Tsarist generals, through Lenin, Stalin and Marx to Karimov and his use of the Tamerlane cult. On the surface it was a paean to state progress, but the message that "Karimov too will pass" could not have been more clear. Weil was a great subverter.

Mark Weil had recently been engaged in one of those collaborations with Western theatre which so worried the authorities, adapting D.B.C. Pierre's Ludmila's Broken English. He had just attended the final rehearsal of Ilkhom's new season. Arriving back at his apartment block, he was attacked and stabbed by a group of men. Earlier this year, I investigated many murderous assaults on Russian journalists. In each case, they were ambushed on return home from work – the standard method of the security services. Weil's killing precisely fits the pattern.

Weil and Ilkhom were responsible for one of the most important contributions ever made by the arts to the world of society and politics, and one which was crucial to the intellectual ferment and self-questioning that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. With Mark Weil a great talent dies, and one of the last flickering embers of freedom in Uzbekistan.

Craig Murray