David Lister: The Week in Arts

Why is this drama not in the global spotlight?
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The Independent Online

One of the most exciting theatre companies around is Complicité, led by its director Simon McBurney. The company's production of A Disappearing Number, a play about mathematics, was the hottest ticket in town during its run at the Barbican.

But what lingers in my memory even more than the play is something that happened in the middle of the curtain call on the night I went, and on other nights during the play's run. At the end of the performance, McBurney came on stage to announce that all the performances were being dedicated to Mark Weil, head of the Iikhom theatre company in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. McBurney told the audience that Weil had been murdered, and the killing bore all the hallmarks of a political murder.

I couldn't help but think that if theatre had the same clout as film in Britain, then not only would Simon McBurney be a household name, but his words would have had national exposure. If George Clooney had drawn attention to this murder, then I suspect a posse of investigative reporters would be heading for Tashkent.

Weil founded his company 30 years ago as the first independent theatre company in the then Soviet Union. His murder has certainly shaken the world of international theatre. Here's what happened. He had just finished the dress rehearsal of his production of The Oresteia and was returning to his apartment. As he entered the hallway, two men attacked him with a bottle and stabbed him. They did not take any of the valuables he was carrying. Weil died three hours later in hospital. His last words were: "I'm opening the season tomorrow, whatever happens."

His death has still not been reported in Uzbekistan, and though there have been rumours on websites that he disturbed junkies who then turned on him, McBurney's assertion that this was a political killing is shared by all who have followed Weil's career.

Iikhom, which means inspiration, was among other things a centre of Russian culture in the now Islamic fundamentalist Uzbekistan. Weil did not shirk in the drama that he presented from exploring and criticising fundamentalism. He put on plays about homosexuality in a country where homosexuality is illegal, and dramas about drug addiction, unemployment and religion.

The country's repressive regime, which denounced all foreign entertainment, would also have been unhappy that he was about to collaborate on a theatre project with the Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre. Weil once declared optimistically that "theatre has no enemies". But he was not naive about the risks he was taking. He told DBC Pierre that his company always presented itself as an artistic theatre, not a political one, but added: "Although, in this life it is quite difficult to separate these issues."

It's interesting, of course, that in Uzbekistan theatre can be so important and influential that its leading practitioner is murdered by those who fear its message. Equally, it is interesting that Weil's death, aside from obituaries in this newspaper and a few others, has not attracted a fraction of the attention that the murder of a journalist in Russia allegedly by the state apparatus has, or that a murder of a film director or rock star would.

It's a curious paradox. Theatre abroad can be important enough for its leaders to be loathed and feared by the state. Yet theatre here can still be the property of such a small circle that the murder receives scant attention even when it is denounced by one of the most important men on the British arts scene.

Take note: this is illegal...

The Chapman brothers (pictured) have a novel wheeze at the Frieze Art Fair. The maverick artists ask people to hand them a banknote on which they then draw, ostensibly making the note more valuable. It may or may not be art. However, it is certainly illegal. Without wishing to be a party pooper, I should point out that the British Currency and Bank Notes Act, 1928, states: "If any person prints or stamps or by any like means impresses on any bank note any words, letters or figures, he shall, in respect of each offence, be liable on summary conviction to a penalty not exceeding one pound." That fine was increased to £200 in 1982. So with all the bank notes the brothers are signing, that could amount to quite a tidy sum if they are prosecuted.

I'm not sure exactly who would be liable, the Chapman brothers, the Frieze Art Fair or the fair's sponsors The Guardian newspaper. No doubt they will all club together if the case comes to court.

* What a lot of heroes, legends, icons and all purpose golden oldies there were at the Q Awards this week. There was a Merit award for Ryan Adams, a Hero award for the late Anthony Wilson, a Legend award for Ian Brown, an Inspiration award for Damon Albarn, an Idol award for Kylie Minogue and an Icon award for Sir Paul McCartney.

I don't know if the people at Q got stuck in the lift with a dictionary of synonyms or if they lost confidence in the state of contemporary music. But I'd love to hear how they define the difference between icon, inspiration, legend, idol and hero. The judging process must have been linguistically fascinating. And I feel for poor old Johnny Marr. After all those icons, legends and heroes, he must have felt a little hard done by just receiving a plain old-fashioned Lifetime Achievement award.