Theatre review: #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Installation art work is often passed off as theatre these days, so it's refreshing to have a theatrical exposition of installation art in Howard Brenton’s new play about Ai Weiwei, whom the Chinese authorities detained for 81 days and made world famous.

Weiwei sits like an inscrutable, affable Buddha at the centre of his own show, which takes place in an art gallery and bursts out of a huge packing crate where office and prison furniture is wrapped in papier mâché and an inset toilet cubicle is scanned by a CCTV camera.

When Weiwei does a wee-wee, he crams into the cubicle with two guards and we see the three of them projected on a screen. Sometimes he just sits in enforced silence, or responds to instruction (“Sleep!”) bellowed at him by the guards in unison.

As his interrogators become more interested in his art – “We found out what you are: Dadaist!” one exclaims, delightedly – so Weiwei risks provoking conversation and even quotes Mao’s Little Red Book on the subject of dialectical materialism. “You know so much more than we do,” wails his persecutor. “It’s so sad.”

Brenton has based his play on Weiwei’s own account of the 81 days in journalist Barnaby Martin’s new book, Hanging Man. It’s a classic case of bolshie artist in a paranoid political environment, and a much more delicate situation than in Martin McDonagh’s blistering first play The Pillowman, in which a writer of children’s fantasy stories is bullied by an inspector over some recent child murders in the city.

Weiwei is asked whom he killed, but more persistent charges are of  “conning” the public and “swindling” the art market with his nailed-together chairs and bicycles, his middle finger close-up in Tiananmen Square and his field of a million sun-flower seeds in Tate Modern.

The exhibitionism in the play runs parallel with the programme of desensitisation and humiliation, a process elegantly staged in James Macdonald’s production which is populated with  policemen, soldiers and politicos (the latter demonstrating the public place of culture in an orderly life by listening to Mozart piped through tree trunks) as well as tourists and functionaries.

Benedict Wong’s baffled, bovine Weiwei is a large, almost loveable madcap, leading his guards a merry dance through a heated discussion on how best to prepare Beijing noodles when there’s no sign even of another glass of water. Art for art’s sake, indeed. 

To 18 May (020 7722 9301)