Turkmenistan

Historic Uzbekistan theatre under threat from developers

A cherished independent theatre in Uzbekistan is fighting eviction after realestate developers in the booming capital selected its historic location for a new business centre.

The Ilkhom theatre of Mark Weil, which has provided a rare venue for experimental theatre and culture in Tashkent since the Soviet era, says it could be forced out of its home for up to two years because of renovations required by a new building owner, Ofelos Plaza. A prolonged disruption could prove a “death sentence” to the theatre, according to its directors, and that threat has ignited an international campaign to protect it under the social media hashtag #SaveIlkhom.

With negotiations continuing, the theatre has issued a defiant message that it will not be closing its doors and this weekend premiered a new show called Zavtra, or “Tomorrow”.

Government intervention has already provided a reprieve, but employees and fans of the theatre say more should be done to preserve the Ilkhom as a cultural landmark, given its history of experimental theatre and social criticism from the Soviet period through the darkest days of dictatorship under Uzbekistan’s former leader, Islam Karimov.

“At first I thought it was a joke, that it couldn’t be true,” said Ashot Danielyan, a musician and poet who has collaborated with the Ilkhom. “There was this surprise – that one day your favourite theatre can be sold by someone. It belongs not just to someone. It belongs to the city, to the people, to the culture.”

Initially, Ofelos Plaza had demanded the Ilkhom permanently vacate the basement space it has occupied since 1976. In response, hundreds turned out to a public discussion about the theatre’s future and members of Uzbekistan’s government stepped in to handle negotiations with the building owner, which agreed not to permanently evict the theatre.

“I myself am a fan of the theatre and want to assure everyone that we won’t forsake it! Ilkhom is the pride of our cultural life!” wrote Saida Mirziyoyeva, the daughter of president Shavkhat Mirziyoyev, in an online post.

The theatre was founded by Mark Weil, a Tashkent-born theatre director who used the artistic space to showcase local playwrights and develop a unique repertoire of original works and reimagined classics. He also established the Ilkhom as the only theatre in the Soviet Union that did not depend on state funding.

“My memories of this theatre go back to my childhood, when my parents brought me here, the theatre was still mostly underground, and it was really considered lucky to come here,” said Irina Bharat, Ilkhom’s assistant general manager, who has worked at the theatre since 2005. “In those days, the shows started at nine or 10 in the evening, after all the other productions at the other theatres had ended. And the repertoire was completely different from Tashkent’s theatres and the entire Soviet space. It is the first independent theatre of the entire Soviet space. There are no equivalents.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Weil made contacts in international theatre groups and continued to showcase foreign and controversial productions at the Ilkhom, despite increasing pressure from the government.

In 2007, Weil was stabbed to death near his home while returning from a dress rehearsal for the Oresteia, a tragedy by Aeschylus. Three men found guilty of the murder later called it an act of revenge for his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his play Imitating the Koran.

“We have a principled position: we believe in the freedom of speech. We have had to pay for this in various ways,” said Bharat. “The most tragic moment in the history of our theatre was the murder of Mark Weil in 2007. What’s happening today is the second tragic story in the history of the theatre. But we feel a mountain of support behind us.”

The theatre’s peril is also symbolic of wider changes. Tashkent has seen a wave of investment since Karimov’s death in 2016, and the capital’s rapid development has in part come at the expense of its citizens. Controversial regeneration projects have sparked a wave of grassroots activism, with residents protesting about rushed demolitions to make way for new buildings.

Similarly, the management of the Ilkhom said they were not even aware that the building had been sold by the government to a developer when they received the order to vacate the building.

When word of the eviction came, the Ilkhom was preparing for the debut of Zavtra. Danielyan, who composed the music for the production, described it as “anti-utopian” and a “mix of a rock concert and a play … it’s like they’re acting inside of a rock concert, and it’s an experiment”.

The Ilkhom also provides a centre for lectures, art exhibitions and even a yearly Rock Fest, which welcomes musicians who would otherwise be prevented from putting on their own shows.

“It’s not welcome to play rock music in most places,” he said. “But here, the theatre can do it.”