#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at Hampstead Theatre
Playwright Howard Brenton’s #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei recounts the 2011 detention of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was imprisoned in Beijing for 81 days for an unspecified crime. Hampstead Theatre brought the story to the stage just two years after the events took place, in April 2013. The action unfolds in a bare studio that becomes the contemporary space where the artist’s works are exhibited, and then doubles up as the neutral background for a four-walled cell with collapsible sides, where Weiwei is held and then interrogated.
The focus of the production is very narrow. The action begins with his arrest at the airport and moves to the various cells where he is taken and left to wait for hours on end, and then eventually questioned by officials who barely know who he is and clutch at straws when attempting to accuse him of wrongdoing. Rather than transforming the events into a theatrical tour de force injected with Ai Weiwei’s artistic vision, the aim of the play seems to be merely that of documenting in a plain and linear way.
The central themes that transpire, namely censorship and freedom of speech, are inherent to the story and thus inevitably part of the piece, but there is no sign of intensifying them and no clear attempt at retelling the story creatively. The piece is essentially a reenactment of what took place. It is interesting in that it brings to life what could be a descriptive account or detailed newspaper article disclosing what Weiwei experienced.
His sense of frustration does come through, but in trying to make it clear that he is a fish out of water, his detainers are transformed into caricatures. They are stereotypes of ignorant baddies blindly following orders from above. While this highlights the Kafkaesque element of absurdity, it also makes all other characters aside from the protagonist two-dimensional, and their interactions banal. Portraying everyone in the work as incredibly inferior to the main character, intellectually and morally, is perhaps reductive.
Ultimately, the production offers no new insights to those familiar with Ai Weiwei’s works and ideas, and also fails to draw a clear picture of the artist for those who know little or nothing of him. What the production does is point the finger at a corrupt and dangerous system muting the voices of artists daring to express themselves freely and questioning the status quo, but it does so superficially. Previous knowledge of the context and further research will most certainly spark debate, but the play itself offers no emotional or intellectual highs.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey