Howard Brenton, based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man
Directed by James MacDonald
Pros: An intelligent script which portrays the life of an important figure both realistically and with great humour. Benedict Wong breathes life into the central role.
Cons: A slow start makes it difficult to fully engage in the first half.
Our Verdict: This show isn’t ground-breaking, but it explores important issues with terrific insight while incorporating nice performances and a surprising number of laugh-out-loud moments.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political activist who has caused controversy in his native China due to his liberal stance on human rights and his open criticism of the Chinese government. In 2011, he was arrested at Beijing airport, and held for questioning for over two months, without any official charges being made.
Considering this show deals with the detention, interrogation and eventual release of Ai Weiwei, I was expecting at least some scenes of violence, but perhaps thankfully, this is a relatively light journey through the life of an extraordinary man. Based on a book by Barnaby Martin, the script allows us to understand who this man is and why he has become a target for the Chinese authorities.
The show also delves into more philosophic aspects of modern art and its place in society. As Ai Weiwei is questioned about his worth as an artist, we are also asked if contemporary art exists at all as a valid form of self-expression, at least compared to the technical expertise of times gone by. Is Weiwei’s installation filled with sunflower seeds just as thoroughly impressive as a great Renaissance painting, or can such a strange concept even be described as art at all? More importantly, we are being asked if we have the right to deny any form of artistic self-expression, both as individuals and as a society. If art can be described collectively, isn’t it the result of active self-expression, regardless of its form or media? And to deny this is to undoubtedly to deny a basic human right.
The set itself is a giant art exhibition with various artistic types wandering around taking pictures and discussing Weiwei’s work. The sheer magnitude of the stage at the Hampstead Theatre
teamed with stark lighting design makes it all feel impressively authentic. A large crate opens up in the middle section to become a separate interrogation room, allowing us to experience Weiwei’s detainment as a piece of installation art.
This show has much to commend it, including terrific set design and a poetic script, but the show’s success really rests on the shoulders of Benedict Wong in the title role. Firstly, he looks remarkably like Ai Weiwei himself which certainly helps in keeping the show realistic, but far more importantly, he is extremely likable and communicates beautifully with his audience throughout the entire evening. We become confidantes during his darkest hour, listening to his inner thoughts and fears as he awaits release. A corker of a monologue is likely to bring a tear to your eye towards the end.
Contemporary politics is an underused topic in theatre generally but Eastern governmental issues such as this are a rare sight indeed. Playwright Howard Brenton eloquently provides us with a glimpse into a fascinating culture, seen through the eyes of one of its most talented exports.
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#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei runs at the Hampsead Theatre until 18th May 2013.