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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2013

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei has, unsurprisingly, been in and out of trouble with the Chinese government throughout his career and was, not too surprisingly, arrested in April 2011. 

He was held for 81 days with only token gestures at interrogation and then freed with a minor charge of tax evasion. Howard Brenton's play is based on Ai Weiwei's own account. 

The purpose of the play is to present the Chinese government as incapable of understanding artists and afraid of them just because they're not understood, and Ai Weiwei as a champion of individuality and freedom of expression. 

In fact, the government comes across as far more sophisticated and subtle in its treatment of dissidents, while the artist is improbably nave and politically unaware, and not particularly sympathetic. 

There can be no question that any arrest and imprisonment must be an ordeal, but in fact Ai Weiwei's experience seems fairly mild as political prisoners go. 

Although he lives with the fear of a long sentence and possible beatings, in fact he is never harmed, is not visibly broken by the regimentation, gets to chat with his guards and even has the satisfaction of teaching his interrogators something about art. 

Meanwhile, cutaways to a pair of Party apparatchiks make it clear that they're more concerned with him as a symbol than a real threat, looking first to neutralise his fame by taking him out of circulation and then to neutralise his power as a martyr by releasing him. 

So through much of the play Ai Weiwei is presented with no irony or distance as fearing things that are not going to happen, arguing a case that is not the one they have against him, and completely missing what's really going on.

In fact Howard Brenton continues to miss the point when he runs out of plot and turns the last ten minutes of the play into a lecture by Ai Weiwei, continuing to make an argument about freedom of expression that sounds lovely to our ears but has little to do with the actual case.

As Ai Weiwei, Benedict Wong's primary theatrical task is to make us understand that, even if the artist was never in much real danger, it felt scary and intimidating to him. But Wong is too stolid and lumpen for us to see much more happening inside the man than the little being done to him externally. 

David Lee-Jones and Orion Lee create interesting interrogators with contrasting styles, while Junix Inocian and David K.S. Tse score as government officials who trust each other about as little as they do the prisoner. 

Director James Macdonald and designer Ashley Martin Davis set most of the action in a large shipping container on display in an art gallery, reducing everything to the level of an art installation and further removing it from reality or any particular emotional concern.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Arrest of Ai Weiwei - Hampstead Theatre 2013  

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