Clay sunflower seeds filling Tate Modern’s turbine hall, the brilliant documentary “Never Sorry”, Hanging Man by Barnaby Martin and Ai Wei Wei’s own Twitter feeds have all recently added to the reputation of a controversial artist and the political oppression he faces in China. So what can a new play by Howard Brenton possibly add to the mix?
The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei charts the detention and interrogation of a conceptual artist over 81 days in 2011. From a thematic point of view it’s similar to Brenton’s last outing at the Hampstead Theatre, 55 Days, which centred around the trial of Charles I. The action is taken directly from accounts in Martin’s book, and at times can be as dull as you’d expect from reading transcripts. But be patient (like Wei Wei) and the play begins to show its teeth.
Director James Macdonald has brilliantly treated the play, and indeed Wei Wei’s arrest, as an art installation. Stage crew/performers manouvre a transforming stage around a pale gallery space, while soldiers patrol the perimeter. When they’re not needed, they either sit at the side to watch, or snap pictures on their phones, sending Tweets into the aether. It’s a form you imagine Wei Wei himself would approve of.
What at first seems like it will be an examination of brutality, eventually unfolds into a platform for Wei Wei to deliver his infamous soundbites about artistic freedom. When one policeman suggests he condemned the state on his blog, he replies: “It was in the moment. You should be able to live in the moment if you’re free.” This isn’t just rage against China’s internet censorship, but anyone who has jumped on the bandwagon of “you can’t say that on Twitter”.
Benedict Wong is amazing. Not only does he take on Wei Wei’s appearance and demeanour, but he masters the artist’s quiet manipulation and explosive, honest rage. If this play offers anything new to the sea of comment on and by Wei Wei, then it is this exploration of his inner character, away from the art, the cameras, home and family that proves most fascinating. In keeping with the theme of internet freedom, Hampstead Theatre is streaming the show for free on Friday 19 April.
The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei runs until Saturday 18 May 2013 at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3HL. Tickets £14.50-£29. Londonist saw the show on a complimentary review ticket.