‘The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’, Hampstead

Ai Weiwei must be one of the most famous living artists in the world today. From sunflower seeds at the Tate to Gangnam Style parodies, his work attracts huge international attention, and his popularity around these parts of the world is immense.

The thing that he’s most famous for though, hasn’t got so much to do with freedom of expression as the suppression of it. In 2011 he was arrested and held by Chinese authorities before eventually being released. In #AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Howard Brenton takes this imprisonment and uses it to ask questions about the validity of art and the importance of free speech in modern life.

One thing that surprised me from very early on was just how much Benedict Wong, in the main role, looks like Ai Weiwei, from his build through to his beard. Wong is commanding as Weiwei, questioning his captors with convincing anger, confusion and passion as the plot progresses.

It starts very simply, with Weiwei being arrested while trying to board a flight. He’s then taken to a room and interrogated. I say interrogated; what follows is more like a lengthy debate, as Weiwei attempts to justify his work and his life to the machineries of the state. His opponents feel that he is upper class, that he is trying to undermine the government, and that his art has no value. They try to wear him down with repetitive questioning, throwing as many angles as they can throw at him. He is forced to argue and justify beliefs he feels are so basic that they should be obvious to everyone.

Over time he begins to win over his interrogators through patience, determination and hard-fought points. At times, the play feels Kafkaesque in execution, with Weiwei asking repeatedly what crimes he has even been arrested for of men who appear sympathetic but are unable to offer anything outside of the orders they have been given.

The setting for the play is also remarkable. The interrogation room sits in a large white box in the middle of the stage, which is assembled and opened up as required by the action. The stage hands are clearly visible before the large white backdrop, lending to the production a feel of being set in a large, slickly run environment and adding to the sense of otherworldliness of the action.

The themes on display through the duration of the play are noble ones, and the cast put in some fine performances. Although the questions being asked have been asked often before both on stage and in literature, the context of a modern real-life incident lends a sense of freshness to the matter, and the production benefits hugely from this.

#AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei runs until Saturday 18 May at:

Hampstead Theatre
Eton Avenue
Swiss Cottage

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

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