Hampstead Theatre, London
The Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei’s iconic face stares out of the Hampstead theatre programme. One of the most famous profiles in western Art, he has become a symbol for the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression the world over. Cultures seem to throw up personalities from time to time who personify their age. One thinks of Nelson Mandela, the writer Solzhenitsyn. Weiwei’s hooded eyes and beard etched in grey now looks marbled. Unmoving.Weiwei, it seems from Barnaby Martin’s excellent programme note, has been a critic of his government’s stance since 1979 when he was part of a small avant garde group of artists known as The Stars who rebelled against Maoist doctrines of Art.
Influenced by exile in the US and western modernism, Weiwei’s activism now spans more than three decades. Londoners will remember his Sunflower Seeds (2010, Tate Modern), one hundred million porcelain “seeds”, individually hand-painted as a statement on mass consumption and Chinese collective farming.
In April 2011, he was arrested at Beijing Airport and held for 81 days without ever being charged. Howard Brenton’s dramatisation, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei tells the story, based on Weiwei’s own account as reported in Martin’s later book, Hanging Man.
The result is no easy, biographical drama. There is an edgy sparsity to James Macdonald’s production that belies the intensity – and absurdity – of its subject’s treatment. As Brenton notes, `you couldn’t make it up’.
So we witness Weiwei’s arrest, the manner of his `interrogation’ – often surreally cruel in its repetition and boredom – and the interlocking scenes with Chinese political `bigwigs’. These last, maintains Brenton, were the only scenes he invented and in his typically acute style, expose the realpolitik going on within the higher reaches of the Chinese Communist Party as to how to `play’ the West’s reaction to such a famous incarceration.
Macdonald’s production is itself like some Tate Modern installation. Students hover, snapping away like flies round a honey pot. The `set’ is a large wooden box whose walls fall to the ground, or can be dismantled and dispatched backstage through a vast grey sliding door. The two Chinese apparatchiks discuss strategy in front of rolls of cliched pretty paintings.
And in the end, Weiwei’s potent argument in support of the avant garde Art hits home with resounding and relevant force.
Partly this is due to Benedict Wong’s towering performance as Weiwei to whom he also bears a striking resemblance. Partly it is due to the extraordinary and disciplined performances Macdonald draws especially from Weiwei’s two young guards – Andrew Koji and Chrisotpher Goh – and partly it is from Weiwei’s own words. And actions.
Although he is speaking from his own standpoint, his final words are a powerful testimony against the inadequacy of bourgeois art and `a thing of beauty’ to express `the world in which we live, how we feel’. It pays for a perfect lifestyle, safety. And silence. `Better not think, better not be awake’.
And with that, he takes a 2000 year old Han Dynasty urn and smashes it to the ground. As he did and recorded in a famous triptych.
Awkward, uncomfortable but immense.
#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei runs to May 18, 2013
Review first published on Londongrip, April 2013