★★★★ The Times
★★★★ The Telegraph
★★★★ The Guardian
★★★★ The Independent
★★★★ The Financial Times
★★★★ Time Out
On 3 April 2011, as he was boarding a flight to Taipei, the Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport. Advised merely that his travel “could damage state security”, he was escorted to a van by officials after which he disappeared for 81 days. On his release, the government claimed that his imprisonment related to tax evasion.
Howard Brenton’s new play is based on recent conversations with Ai in which he told the story of that imprisonment – by turns surreal, hilarious, and terrifying. A portrait of the Artist in extreme conditions, it is also an affirmation of the centrality of Art and of freedom of speech in civilised society.
Brenton returns to Hampstead Theatre following the critically acclaimed 55 Days last season. His other recent credits include Never So Good, Danton’s Death (National Theatre) and Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe).
Director James Macdonald make his Hampstead Main Stage debut following And No More Shall We Part in the Downstairs studio which subsequently transferred to the Edinburgh Festival last summer. As Associate Director of The Royal Court for 14 years, his many productions include Cock, Love and Information and Blasted. Other credits include A Delicate Balance (Almeida Theatre) and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (National Theatre).
Benedict Wong will play Ai Weiwei. He most recently featured in the critically acclaimed Hamlet (Young Vic) opposite Michael Sheen. His many film credits include Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, The Lady, Dirty Pretty Things and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The Counselor directed by Ridley Scott and Hummingbird written and directed by Steven Knight will be released later this year.
This production is made possible by the generous support of Lin and Ken Craig.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
Dates & Times
|Thu 11 Apr||7:30pm||Preview||Archived|
|Fri 12 Apr||7:30pm||Preview||Archived|
|Sat 13 Apr||7:30pm||Preview||Archived|
|Mon 15 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Tue 16 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Thu 18 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Fri 19 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Sat 20 Apr||3:00pm||Archived|
|Sat 20 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Mon 22 Apr||7:30pm||Patrons Evening||Archived|
|Tue 23 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 24 Apr||2:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 24 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Thu 25 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Fri 26 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Sat 27 Apr||3:00pm||Archived|
|Sat 27 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Mon 29 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Tue 30 Apr||7:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 1 May||2:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 1 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Thu 2 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Fri 3 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Sat 4 May||3:00pm||Audio Described Performance||Archived|
|Sat 4 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Mon 6 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Tue 7 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 8 May||2:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 8 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Thu 9 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Fri 10 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Sat 11 May||3:00pm||Archived|
|Sat 11 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Mon 13 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Tue 14 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 15 May||2:30pm||Archived|
|Wed 15 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Thu 16 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Fri 17 May||7:30pm||Archived|
|Sat 18 May||3:00pm||Archived|
|Sat 18 May||7:30pm||Archived|
Howard Brenton’s drama about the treatment of the artist Ai Weiwei at the hands of the Chinese authorities is clearly An Important Play. But it is also a very good play – moving, scary, gripping, inventive and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
It is based directly on the account this brave and thought-provoking artist gave to the writer Barnaby Martin about his arrest in his book Hanging Man. As a consequence it has a satisfying smack of authenticity. And that is just as well, for Weiwei’s experience was at times so surreal as to defy belief.But it is impossible not to warm to Weiwei in Benedict Wong’s remarkable performance. He captures the man’s fear on arrest, but also his warmth, wit and bravery. And Brenton depicts something remarkable that happened during the course of the interrogations. The tough, disconcertingly odd inquisitors began to warm to Weiwei, to respect him, and become interested in his art – a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in reverse, as the dramatist puts it in his preface to the play.
There are also fascinating scenes involving high-level government officials which suggest the confusion and fear they feel about dissidents in the digital age. How do you keep the lid on a population with access to the internet, Twitter accounts and mobile phones?
James Macdonald directs a gripping and ingenious production which captures the menace, fear and sudden moments of startling, surreal humour of the interrogation scenes. Meanwhile Ashley Martin Davis’s design makes the production resemble a modern artwork. The action takes place in a white cube, dominated by a huge wooden container of the kind used to transport cultural artefacts. It is then ingeniously transformed into two different sets, one of them slyly alluding to Weiwei’s Birds’s Nest.
This is a compelling play for today and it should reach a wide audience. It is being live-streamed for free tonight at 7.20 on multiple platforms including hampsteadtheatre.com and youtube.com/hampsteadtheatre. No doubt Chinese government officials will be watching it with keen interest.
Based on a book by Barnaby Martin, it is an eloquent piece of quasi-documentary theatre that raises any number of issues: chief amongst them the bafflement of the monolithic state in dealing with artistic freedom.
Any fear we might be in for a dour evening is quickly expelled by James Macdonald’s production which has the excellent idea of treating Weiwei’s story as if it were piece of installation art.
In Ashley Martin Davis’s design we seem to be in a chic, brightly-lit gallery where the busy staff mill around a rotating crate. This opens up to reveal the protagonist and to embody the two different prisons in which he was detained. But it’s not merely a bright idea. It reinforces the concern, expressed by a high-ranking Chinese official, that Weiwei’s greatest work of art could turn out to be his own incarceration.
The two interrogation scenes also beautifully capture the bewilderment of a rigid state when confronted by works of imagination. In the first Weiwei is interviewed by two murder cops who don’t know how to cope with a man who makes art out of bolted-together bicycles or old chairs: their charge that he is a con-man who sells cheap rubbish at high prices is quickly answered by the fact that the Party now allows market forces. Matters turn more serious when Weiwei is transferred to an army camp, finds that even his bodily functions are minutely supervised and is accused by a sportsman, wearing a Giggs number 11 football shirt, of subverting state power.
In a way, the evening is like an odd mix of Kafka and Beckett. You can’t help thinking of The Trial in that Weiwei is never sure, until the last minute, of what he is supposed to be guilty of other than following the dictates of art.
But there is also something deeply Beckettian in the idea that drama can be made out of the process of waiting: for long periods Weiwei is confined to a chair staring silently outwards while his captors seem as much victims of the system as himself. And when Weiwei cries, in one of his many internal ruminations, “Unendurable-must be endured” you feel the words might have come from a novel like Molly or Malone Dies.
Benedict Wong not only bears a strong resemblance to Weiwei but marvellously captures his mixture of resilience, rage, wiliness and wit: there’s one richly comic sequence where he discusses with his captors how to make the best hand-pulled noodles. David Lee-Jones, Richard Rees and Orion Lee as his interrogators and David KS Tse as a silky politician provide strong support and, when the show is live-streamed for free on 19 April, it is eminently worth catching to see what happens when the irresistible force of artistic imagination confronts the immovable object of the state.
What do you expect of a dramatisation of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s 81 days in jail in 2011? Harsh interrogation scenes? Communist Party doublespeak? Jailors mocking their captive’s decadent art and money-making ways? Perhaps rounded off with pronouncements about freedom of speech?
The terrific thing about Howard Brenton’s play, adapted from Barnaby Martin’s recently published book of interviews with Ai Weiwei, is also the most testing thing about it. Yes, all of the above is in there. But it’s low in the mix in a play that goes for the slow burn as it depicts the banality of evil and the tedium of confinement.
It shows the authorities slowly draining the hope from Weiwei’s existence as he finds how unremarkable his predicament is to anyone but himself. “I’ve been put into a machine, haven’t I?” he says, arrested at the airport for endangering “state security”, kept in a cell, interrogated by two policemen who only know who he is after looking him up on the internet.
The pace in the first half is slow, cautious. But the slow burn strikes sparks in the second half. The quietly smothering nature of the drama comes to feel confining to us as well. And so the dramatic upsurges, when they come, register all the more.
Asked to read out his blogs against the state, Weiwei reheats his anger. He quotes Mao to an uncomprehending interrogator — wearing a Ryan Giggs strip — to back his argument that being critical of the state is actually an act of patriotism.
But in the depiction of the underpaid and overworked policemen, the soldiers who express their unhappiness to him through clenched teeth so their dissidence can’t be lipread through CCTV, even in the urbane chats between high-up officials, he knows better than to simply single out bad men doing bad things to a good man.
Benedict Wong is unflashy but compelling as Weiwei, supported by a fine cast who handle the comic moments with the same light touch with which they handle the harsher ones. Soft power indeed.
Installation art work is often passed off as theatre these days, so it’s refreshing to have a theatrical exposition of installation art in Howard Brenton’s new play about Ai Weiwei, whom the Chinese authorities detained for 81 days and made world famous.
Weiwei sits like an inscrutable, affable Buddha at the centre of his own show, which takes place in an art gallery and bursts out of a huge packing crate where office and prison furniture is wrapped in papier mâché and an inset toilet cubicle is scanned by a CCTV camera.
When Weiwei does a wee-wee, he crams into the cubicle with two guards and we see the three of them projected on a screen. Sometimes he just sits in enforced silence, or responds to instruction (“Sleep!”) bellowed at him by the guards in unison.
As his interrogators become more interested in his art – “We found out what you are: Dadaist!” one exclaims, delightedly – so Weiwei risks provoking conversation and even quotes Mao’s Little Red Book on the subject of dialectical materialism. “You know so much more than we do,” wails his persecutor. “It’s so sad.”
The exhibitionism in the play runs parallel with the programme of desensitisation and humiliation, a process elegantly staged in James Macdonald’s production which is populated with policemen, soldiers and politicos (the latter demonstrating the public place of culture in an orderly life by listening to Mozart piped through tree trunks) as well as tourists and functionaries.
Benedict Wong’s baffled, bovine Weiwei is a large, almost loveable madcap, leading his guards a merry dance through a heated discussion on how best to prepare Beijing noodles when there’s no sign even of another glass of water. Art for art’s sake, indeed.
It’s a modest yet tremendously powerful piece of political theatre. Sympathetic and restrained, in its very nature it extends Ai’s demands for freedom of speech and considers the way art and authority interact in the internet age.
But it also conveys the bizarre nightmare of incarceration, by turns terrifying, tedious and absurd. It’s the detail that counts. Ai is first held by police: his guards alternate between barking orders at him and playing Super Mario on their phones; his interrogators, accustomed to murder cases, are baffled as to what to do with him. At one point, after days of stalemate, captors and captive discuss the best way to make Beijing hand-pulled noodles. Eventually he is shifted to a padded room, where every second of his day (including toilet breaks) is observed by two young soldiers, standing inches away. Here he is interrogated by a man in a Manchester United football shirt who accuses him of subverting state power but ends up discussing Dadaism. Throughout, Benedict Wong is very moving as Ai: a sturdy, witty, defiant figure, deeply distressing when he finally breaks and hurls abuse.
But this is more than a documentary piece. Brenton includes imagined exchanges between two high-ranking government officials on how to handle Ai. “How do you police a symbolic act?” asks one. “The most dangerous symbol could be Ai Weiwei in jail,” says the other. “His greatest work: his own imprisonment.”
James Macdonald’s astute production, simply, fluidly delivered, deliberately embraces that irony by staging Ai’s story as an art installation, played out in a giant packing crate and observed by a chorus of young people armed with mobile phones. It is livestreamed tonight, worldwide, free, from the theatre website.
The form is kind of polished agit prop meets Kafka-esque black comedy, as the excellent Benedict Wong – in a startlingly chameleonic physical transformation, piling on years, pounds and ‘that’ beard – plays Ai during his 81-day arrest of 2011. There’s plenty of fourth wall breaking and exposition on the Chinese government’s contempt for individual freedoms.
But wisely – and probably in anticipation of the fact paying audiences will be reasonably familiar with the case – Brenton doesn’t take the tearjerker route. Instead he lards things with plenty of absurdist philosophical humour as the baffled Ai finds himself attempting to justify not only his work, but conceptual art in general to his not entirely unsympathetic captors.
The play is based upon Ai’s own account of his detention as relayed to author Barnaby Martin in a surreptitious interview conducted after his release, and it’s the sense of playful verity and the artist’s own wry eye for the quirks of his incarceration that make Brenton’s play a genuinely enjoyable watch.
Ai Weiwei – the man behind Bejing’s eye-catching Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and those headline-grabbing sunflower seeds at Tate Modern – is probably the most famous visual artist in the world at the moment.
That celebrity, of course, is significantly indebted to his notoriously knotty relations with the Chinese authorities, who had the dissident artist detained for 81 days in 2011.
Howard Brenton’s small-scale drama focuses on that notorious incident. Based on Ai’s own testimony, the play is essentially an absurdist nightmare. ‘Who did you kill?’ one unbriefed interrogator barks at him (the artist was eventually charged with tax evasion). Brenton is very good on the comic minutiae of Ai’s agonising situation, as well as on the contradictions of the free-market-espousing, freedom-of-speech-suppressing Communist regime.
James Macdonald’s production – led by Benedict Wong, who brings a winningly soft, very unmartyrish perplexity to the part of Ai – pushes Brenton’s chamber drama in the direction of performance-cum-installation art by making the stage over as a gallery space. A large, initially closed wooden container occupies the centre of the playing area and folds out to suggest different locations, while spectators (described in the programme as Netizens, in a nod to Ai’s canny use of social media) sit silently on either side of the stage.
Howard Brenton’s majestically simple, modest and beautifully presented new play is an art gallery installation based on a recently published book by journalist Barnaby Martin about the 81 days of detention endured by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.In becoming his own art work, he’s now prompted this vividly Kafkaesque account (which is live-streamed free tomorrow evening on multiple platforms, including hampsteadtheatre.com) of incarceration, enforced silence, supervised loo visits – Weiwei takes a wee-wee – and aggressive interrogation.
But in the second act, Brenton shifts the emphasis to show how captors are prisoners, too. In one hilarious scene, the guards and Weiwei march up and down in a confined space articulating stiffly between their teeth like ventriloquists so that the CCTV doesn’t show they are talking.
That space is the interior of a huge crate that bursts open in a large gallery where a dozen visitors – who double as the stage-management team – are overseeing the spectacle and taking photographs. Benedict Wong is an imposing, bear-like presence as the genial Weiwei, turning one interrogation scene into a detailed discussion of the best recipe for noodles.And he’s deftly supported by a well-drilled cast of officials and soldiers, seated between scenes at the side on chairs along with the “extras,” including Junix Inocian, Richard Rees, Andrew Koji, Christopher Goh, Andrew Leung and David K S Tse.
The show, which is patiently and precisely directed by James Macdonald, with a superb design by Ashley Martin Davis that uses the full area of the Hampstead stage, and the scene dock, works as an obvious metaphor of the state’s paranoia about any kind of engaged artistic expression. But it also becomes a debate about the dynamic in art between the creative spirit and the general public.
Wong delivers a powerful argument for freedom of speech before performing a re-enactment of one of Weiwei’s most famous desecrations on a bare stage, a brilliant conclusion to a piece of theatre that is both a public service and an absorbing, imaginative response.