“The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits”
The trick behind James Macdonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new play #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is to suggest that the 2011 detention and interrogation of the artist by the Chinese authorities was as big and far-reaching a piece of conceptual art as any of his installations at the Tate Modern. Ashley Martin Davies’ design sets the drama in a gleaming white gallery with spectators lining up either side of a wooden crate, whose walls are opened up to portray the two different cells in which he was kept during the 81 days of his imprisonment. The observers, or netizens, remain onstage throughout as Ai is trapped inside the nightmarish absurdities of such an authoritarian regime.
Based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man which documented Ai’s ordeal using his own testimony, Brenton’s play eschews conventional dramatic structure – it is no secret that the artist is eventually released – for something more ruminative about the nature of incarceration. And in its focus on the detail of the situation, it is ultimately rather insightful into the labyrinthine complexities of living and working under an unbending state whose orthodoxy is struggling to deal with a dissident whose worldwide fame precludes any unexplained disappearance into the murky depths of the system.
Though it may seem weightily conceptual stuff, Macdonald’s assured direction keeps the play very light on its feet, capturing the tonal shifts from incredulity to genuine fear, from outrage to acceptance, and always maintaining a comic edge to affairs, we as much as Ai are clinging onto the absurdity of the situation to deflect from its innate inhumanity. In some ways, it calls to mind Kafka’s The Trial as he is never too sure for what supposed crime he has been detained and that the account comes from the man himself lends these sequences an appalling chill that is far scarier than anything.
What pulls us through is the serenity of Ai, performed with exceptional skill by Benedict Wong, left bewildered by the twists and turns of his ordeal and often left sat in numbed silence, chained to a chair. But he’s also able to form connections with those around him and so there are some brilliantly comic scenes as he discusses the best way to make Beijing hand-pulled noodles with one set of guards, and uses ventriloquism to share life stories with another. Andrew Koji and Christopher Goh subtly suggest the trials faced by those having to work from within the system as they play both sets of apparatchiks and the relationship that Wong develops with them is lovely to watch, anchoring the play well away from the world of pretension and celebrating the endurability of our humanity.
David K.S. Tse and Junix Inocian make an intriguing case for the other side in the only fictionalised scenes of the play as two high-ranking officials debate the best course of action for the regime, though it is difficult to read as much into this as even the real-life machinations of the Chinese government are a mystery to us all and so Brenton is on less sure ground here. But when the focus is on Ai himself, explaining and defending the nature of his art and the rights of the individual in the face of a hostile state, it is powerfully compelling, not least in Wong’s exceptional performance and an extraordinary and beautiful final scene.
Between this play in the main auditorium and Katie Mitchell’s Say It With Flowers downstairs, I’d wager that the Hampstead Theatre is one of the hottest venues in London at the moment with some of the most genuinely interesting theatre in town. It’s a bravely creative choice in an economic climate that is seeing many places stick to safe bets and consequently it is work that might not necessarily be to everyone’s tastes. That said, it is well worth checking out either or both of these shows just for a taste of something different and perhaps with an eye in this, the Hampstead Theatre are livestreaming #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei this evening free of charge and I’d definitely give it a go – you can check it out until 7.30pm Saturday evening on their website.