Review: #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
Upon hearing the name Ai WeiWei, what came to my mind was his signature beard, a recent successful New Statesman guest editorship and a whole load of sunflower seeds. Although a renowned political dissident, the contemporary artist’s eccentric, Tate-friendly image may be shared by many in this country who are unaware of the horrors he experienced at the hands of the Chinese government, when detained in 2011 for the 81 excruciating days starkly dissected in this production.
Playwright Howard Brenton’s pared-down script is based on WeiWei’s own account of his arrest, covered in the book Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Barnaby Martin. And although it is a story that has filled this book and multiple column inches, Brenton’s play is not afraid of silence. Minutes without dialogue or action bravely drag as the audience is taken through the sheer banality of torture along with the artist, played by an at once rumbustious and reflective Benedict Wong.
This atmosphere of an audience simply observing and interpreting is cultivated by the set – a white, functional gallery space with little but a battered white collapsing cuboid in the centre, where the action (or, more often, inaction) takes place.
Any adornments straying from these bare bones are equally minimalist: claustrophobic webs of masking tape, some tame Chinese floral prints ("why can't he paint leaves and pagodas?"), and two screens bringing us action from hidden depths of the cuboid (WeiWei being accompanied to the toilet by two uniformed guards is both amusing and sickeningly intrusive) and from multiple angles – constant police state surveillance being the rather clunking symbol, but it works niftily as a reflection of installation art.
WeiWei is detained as he tries to board a Hong Kong flight. He is detained for “serious allegations”, and the more nebulous the descriptions of his “crimes”, the more sinister his predicament becomes. He tries to explain his reason for travel is “art” and that he is “an artist”. This is met with incredulity and downright denial by the Chinese authorities. “No, you’re an art worker,” interjects one flummoxed comrade.
The almost endearingly hopeless police murder squad who are inexplicably sent to interrogate him cannot comprehend or articulate his political “crimes”, preferring instead to yell “Conman! Swindler! Liar! Bigamist” at him incessantly. They then earnestly discuss the best preparation for Beijing style noodles. The scowling young guards left to stare at the prisoner for days on end play Super Mario on their phones. It is this mix of triviality and extreme repression that slathers the production in poignancy – albeit with one too many Twitter references (is this the first play with a hashtag in the title?).
Slender artsy youths encircle the action taking pictures and videoing on their smartphones. They pose beside the yellowing box which contains WeiWei enshrouded in a black hood – the threat of violence is only ever implied, as one Communist official explains chillingly, “the aim is a broken soul, not a broken body.”
These tweeting youngsters somewhat cheapen the scene changes, but perhaps this is the point. The dissident’s detainment is simply an extension of his conceptual art. He’s not just “a lunatic who cuts up old chairs.” He’s a symbol of the struggle against Chinese repression, all too often overlooked in a West capitulating to the Communist state’s free market flourishing.