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The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre, BargainTheatreland Review
‘How do you police symbolic acts?’

In 2011, millions of people across the globe watched and waited for news of renowned conceptual artist Ai Weiwei, incarcerated by Chinese state officials for 81 days on spurious grounds. Last Friday, an astonishing 15,000 tuned in to the Hampstead Theatre’s free live stream of Howard Brenton’s The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, available on YouTube for 24 hours. As a demonstration of the play’s overriding theme, the power of politically charged art in the democratic digital age, it had a compelling symbolism.

Brenton was last at the Hampstead with 55 Days, and in his depiction of both Charles I’s downfall and Ai Weiwei’s ordeal (the latter based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man) his skill lies in finding relatable human minutiae within world-changing events, preventing his plays from becoming lectures. Of course, there’s no escaping the didactic element in a Kafkaesque drama depicting the battle between a free-thinking artist and an oppressive state, but Brenton avoids a total whitewash by asking insightful questions about the use of art as a tool for provocation.

The production becomes an installation piece of sorts, thanks to Ashley Martin Davis’s innovative design and James Macdonald’s slick direction, echoing the Chinese officials’ fear that Weiwei’s arrest will itself become his greatest work, but also allowing the audience to at least consider both sides of a complex debate. While the state’s method of questioning Weiwei’s output is indefensible, involving as it does sinister acts of humiliation and inhumanity, its arguments about the high prices paid for non-traditional art will strike many as eerily familiar.

Benedict Wong’s Weiwei is articulate and sympathetic in defence, but there is also the smallest hint of the patronising cultural elitist, which complicates the traditional dynamic between martyr and persecutors. Brenton also uses this piece of political drama to explore the relationship between art and ideas. Does Weiwei’s assertion that his work addresses important social issues give it intrinsic value, or should it, as his frustrated interrogators suggest, have beauty outside of thought?

Weiwei argues that ‘beauty is in the minds of the viewers’, and to some extent, the same could be said of Brenton’s play. While it is absorbing in the theatre, it gained an extra dimension from the live stream, with Twitter lending it an alternative collective viewing experience and @hamps_theatre’s factoids inspiring debate, illuminating interesting parallels and encouraging a range of responses, including humorous.

Brenton’s script has a welcome black comedy dimension, demonstrating some of the absurdities of the process, the vexations of middle management and the peculiar juxtapositions of human interaction: Weiwei’s guards break off from physical intimidation to play video games; his interrogators spar playfully over the best way to prepare noodles. But both the knowing wit and deeper political points are aided by the online debate and helpful flow of information, making a good argument for streaming similarly charged plays.

The downside, naturally, is the loss of intensity and the viewer’s split focus, although effective use of close-ups aids the former and the latter arguably isn’t such a problem for a play that invites outside knowledge and real-world connections. It will be interesting to see whether the experiment is repeated, at this or other theatres. Certainly, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is the perfect candidate for free, open, global streaming and accompanying exchange of ideas; its protagonist’s greatest sadness is that his government doesn’t allow its people ‘to listen to each other’.

Whether this is a one-off or the start of a digital revolution, the Hampstead should be applauded for staging and sharing this timely piece in an appropriately thought-provoking way.

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Reviewed 23/04/13/

By Marianka Swain

11th Apr – 18th May 2013
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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