#aiww THE ARREST OF AI WEIWEI
by Howard Brenton.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 18 May 2013.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm & Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 4 May 2pm (+ Touch Tour 1.30pm.
Captioned 14 May (+ transcribed post-show discussion).
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 April.
Statements while under arrest in a reality you could scarcely invent.
This is the drama of austerity; echt-Brecht, with white light, unoccupied performers seated at the stage sides, no music (going beyond Brecht) and house-lights seamlessly fading and rising around each act.
Staging and acting share Brechtian simplicity. When Benedict Wong’s Ai Weiwei is arrested and interrogated, he calmly turns to us and announces the guards will assault him.
Based on the Chinese artist’s conversation in Barnaby Martin’s Hanging Man, and written by an English playwright with a keen interest in China, the play recounts police and army interrogations with a multi-ethnic cast making the point this is about China but also issues beyond one country.
Brenton’s added a couple of scenes in a decorative political ghetto where music’s piped from trees and only officialdom goes, discussing culture and politics at a smart-suited distance. For these alone, designer Ashley Martin Davis imports several flower-patterned screens.
Elsewhere, all is bare, like an art-gallery installation. A central room, laid out for each interrogation space – all stage management’s done with the deliberate effort of art-gallery exhibition hanging – is viewed on screens till the walls come tumbling down. In the military interrogation, cameras give comic close-ups of head and shoulders as two guards follow Weiwei into the toilet.
Like Weiwei’s conceptual art, the tight reticence of James Macdonald’s production makes reality strange. So does reality, as police guards sitting within inches of Weiwei, shouting instructions, become bored, arguing over who’ll fetch him water (which has to be boiled for Health and Safety).
It becomes clear they’re not political police and would be happier investigating a murder, indulging themselves by accusing him of this before entering into affable chat about dada.
The military scenes throw-up similar strangeness, as microscopically-determined routines are contrasted by ways of getting round surveillance. Benedict Wong’s Ai Weiwei is a tower of sense between various state officials. He shows inner fury sometimes barely contained, but also articulates a humane view of art that undercuts familiar charges of elitism.
He can speak for his art; in Brenton he’s found a pithy, focused playwright ideally equipped to convey his experience and its significance.
Ai Weiwei: Benedict Wong.
Airport Official/B: Junix Inocian.
1st Policeman/1st Soldier: Andrew Koji.
2nd Policeman/2nd Soldier: Christopher Goh.
Minder: Richard Rees.
Professor: David Lee-Jones.
Thin Young Man: Andrew Leung.
A: David K S Tse.
Sportsman: Orion Lee.
Netizens: Josie Bloom, Gregory Champkin, Alexandra Donnachie, Roxy Dunn, Demi Jo Franks, Ceri-Rose Larcombe, Amy McCallum, Laura Riseborough, Joshua Sanderson
Director: James Macdonald.
Designer: Ashley Martin Davis.
Lighting: Matthew Richardson.
Sound: Emma Laxton.
Composer: Simon Deacon.
Choreographer: Scott Ambler.
Assistant director: Jennifer Tang.