The artist Ai Weiwei has become famous for using his work to highlight Chinese state oppression. James MacDonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new piece about Ai’s incarceration in 2011 plays upon this idea that his art is a form of protest, by taking one of the containers used to transport his work and dismantling it to reveal a prison cell. A group of young fans watches from the wings - just as the international community did - as the artist is held by the Chinese authorities on unspecified charges for 81 days.
Christopher Goh, Benedict Won and Andrew Koji in The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei the Hampstead Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Brenton’s script, which is based on interviews with the artist, finds great humour in the absurdity of the situation. At first Ai is interrogated by slow-witted murder detectives who have even less of an understanding than he does of why he has been arrested. Eventually they accuse him of being a “swindler” because of the high prices his art fetches despite being made of everyday objects and a discussion ensues about the merits of contemporary art.
Benedict Wong plays the artist as a thoughtful, earnest man with a great love of his people. While the play focuses on the persecution of a famous artist, it makes a wider point about Chinese society as the interrogators grow to sympathise with Ai and reveal their own oppression.
A sense of the anguish felt by the artist during his 81 days of imprisonment is sometimes lost amid the many laughs. But Brenton’s plea for freedom of expression is highly compelling.