Ai Weiwei’s nightmare started at Beijing airport. He planned to fly to Hong Kong. Instead he was held by officials and told not to demean himself by making a fuss in front of his fellow passengers.
The scandal of how one of the world’s most famous artists was thrown in jail, handcuffed, blindfolded and brutalized is the subject of a new play at London’s Hampstead Theatre.
The hashtag in Howard Brenton’s title “#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” refers to Ai’s use of Twitter, which infuriated the authorities. Brenton painstakingly unpicks the April 2011 Chinese inquisition.
For the first time we know what really happened, according to Ai anyway, because the script leans on conversations he had with journalist Barnaby Martin for the book “Hanging Man.”
It’s worthy of Orwell, Pinter or Kafka. The bureaucratic bungling is surreal, comical and disturbing.
“They are going to beat me to a pulp,” says Ai, who pretty quickly fears the worst.
So did many in the West, when news of the arrest hit the airwaves. Ai had simply vanished and was apparently being held for political reasons. As governments protested, China finally said he was being investigated for tax evasion.
In the play, Ai’s first interrogator is from the murder squad, and he says: “All that matters is, who did you kill?”
When Ai replies that he is an artist, he is accused of arrogance and told he’s no more than an “art worker.”
“You think this is some kind of theater,” the policeman says. “You may be quite well known but I don’t know you at all.”
It takes a long time for the ill-informed detectives to realize that they are holding the designer of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing and the creator of the sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in London.
“Your art costs sod-all to make and you flog it for a fortune,” they say, accusing him of being a conman, liar, swindler, hooligan, pornographer and bigamist. Ai is urged to admit a choice of crimes such as theft, subversion of state power or plotting with “hostile forces.”
The central performance is from Ai lookalike Benedict Wong. Terrified at first, he keeps his dignity and humor, talks about the meaning of art and just once breaks into tears as his ignorant guards fail to understand a word of what he is saying. He quotes from Mao’s “Little Red Book” and finally offers a “confession.”
“If I have violated any tax law, then go ahead and punish me,” he says.
James Macdonald’s minimalist direction on a bare stage resembling a box-shaped cell doesn’t convey the claustrophobic terror of events. The guards gradually turn too nice. They share noodle recipes with him, tell jokes, and by the end of his 81- day detention, admit their admiration for Ai.
Not that the awfulness of what Ai lived through is understated: The character of Ai is constantly told that he could be jailed forever unless he cooperates.
This play matters to everyone who cares about freedom -- and about art. Rating: ****.
London’s National Theatre is turning its smallest venue, the Cottesloe, into the Dorfman. In the meantime its remarkable temporary venue, The Shed, looks very much like, well, a large shed. Or an upturned wooden table, which is more than apt, because it has opened with the premiere of “The Table.”
Tanya Ronder has written a sprawling work about a family from the 19th century to the present, and set it around the same inherited dining table. They eat on it, squabble at it, carve on it, chop its legs off, make love, die and give birth on it.
There’s one show-stopping moment (it would be a plot spoiler to say more), as well as moving acting from Paul Hilton in particular. The scenes about an African convent and a hippy commune are sharp, while other sections are long and overly complicated. Rating: **** for the venue, *** for the play.
“#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” is at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU until May 18. Information: +44-20-7722-9301, http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com.
“The Table” is at the Shed, National Theatre, Upper Ground, Southbank, London SE1 9PX, also until May 18. Information: +44-20-7452-3000 or http://nationaltheatre.org.uk.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Robert Heller on music, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Elin McCoy on wine.
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