Howard Brenton: My play is dangerous for Ai Weiwei
Posted on 2 April 2013.
Posted in: Main Stage
Howard Brenton: My play is dangerous for Ai Weiwei
The Telegraph published 3 April
By Tom Wicker
Howard Brenton leans towards me, animated. “You cannot believe how tough the Chinese people are and how resilient,” he says passionately.
With his latest play, he’s traded in the historical intrigues of his recent hits Anne Boleyn and 55 Days for something bang up to date: the Chinese government’s headline-grabbing arrest of dissident artist Ai Weiwei two years ago.
#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei draws on Ai’s secret conversations with the author Barnaby Martin after his release in June 2011 following international pressure. Brenton uses Ai’s experiences while detained for nearly three months in a stripped-out hotel and then a military base to explore artistic defiance, human rights and political tensions in the complex landscape of modern China. The play opens shortly at Hampstead Theatre.
Ai is arguably the perfect subject for the 70-year-old British playwright. Alongside fellow Left-winger David Hare, Brenton made his name in the Seventies and Eighties writing state-of-the-nation plays that tore furiously into conservative values and political idols, railing in comedy and satire against the apparatus of state and media oppression. Despite this firebrand reputation, Brenton is charm itself when we meet during rehearsals. He reveals that this “very special job” was Ai’s idea: “Barnaby contacted the Hampstead and they contacted me.” As such, he feels a great responsibility towards the artist to get it right. “All the interrogation scenes are either verbatim from him, a slight elaboration or edited only a bit,” he stresses.
In addition, he’s visited China several times, first as research for a mooted (but never made) BBC series, and then again last year with his wife, absorbing its history through talking to old Communist Party cadres, villagers and current officials. Conversations with Wall Street Journal China correspondent Jeremy Page guided his focus on the internecine factionalism of the Chinese government. “It’s not dangerous for me to write this play, but it is dangerous for Ai,” Brenton says. “Thankfully, he was very enthusiastic about it when it was got to him. Indeed, he had someone in his office correct Chinese names and typos immediately!”
It’s not just Ai’s bravery in challenging the actions of China’s leadership that Brenton admires, it’s his ethos as a conceptual artist, who once subverted Cultural Revolution-era imagery of devoted mass conformity by scattering individually crafted porcelain sunflower seeds across Tate Modern’s turbine hall.
Where most Western conceptual art, with its unmade beds, is “all about me, me, me”, Brenton argues, “Ai Weiwei is interested in the world and other people.” And from smashing a Han dynasty urn to posting a Gangnam Style parody on YouTube, his “throw it out there” attitude defies Chinese state control and propaganda.
As the real-life Twitter hashtag #aiww in the title suggests, Ai’s use of social media as a forum for free speech, “to spread things”, Brenton says, is crucial to the thrust of the play. The Chinese authorities shut down the artist’s blog in 2009 but, to this day, haven’t been able to stop him tweeting links, articles and views to more than 200,000 followers.
It’s almost certainly this that got him arrested, following the social media-fuelled Arab Spring revolts, which began in late 2010. “That panicked a lot of the leadership,” Brenton says, “because much of China is in a pressure-cooker situation, particularly in the countryside.”
While an attempt on the Chinese version of Twitter to organise similar mass demonstrations failed, it prompted the authorities, “incredibly bothered by social networks”, to crack down on all political opposition, arresting a number of tweeters of whom Ai was the most prominent.
Brenton admires “the bushfire effect” of Twitter as a democratic tool, but has also been burned by it. He closed an account after receiving “incredibly sinister, horrible” tweets responding to an article he wrote attacking the imprisonment of the artistic director of a small Palestinian theatre on whose board he sits.
“The mirror is distorted out there,” he muses. “It has an underside, with jealousy, manipulation and attempts to destroy people. It’s very weird. It’s contaminated.”
From plays about such establishment figures as Harold Macmillan to, last year, Charles I (in 55 Days), some have detected a softening of Brenton’s politics in his recent work. But if anything, it’s just that he’s increasingly fascinated by what makes individuals and regimes at the other end of the ideological spectrum tick.
I’m reminded of this when he elaborates on the play’s focus on soft and hard-line tensions within the Chinese leadership. “You’ve got to bear in mind that none of them are liberals,” he says. “We talk of reformers but that doesn’t mean they’re proto-democrats. I’ve tried to communicate that in the play. Our image of goodies and baddies doesn’t apply.”
If The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is successful, it will be the latest in a string of commercial and critical hits for Brenton in recent years, following a period of popular but critically mauled squibs and satires. “We should have called our little company Deathwish Productions,” he jokes.