Writer: Howard Brenton
Director: James Macdonald
Does art meaningfully represent every part of the world as we experience it or are classical forms of artistic expression merely a limited view of humanity? This question was at the heart of Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment for 81 days in Beijing when he was prevented from boarding a flight to Hong Kong in 2011 for an unspecified crime. A later conversation resulted in playwright Howard Brenton’s 2013 work The Arrest of Ai Weiwei streaming now via Hampstead Theatre at Home.
Art crime stories tend to be about heists, stealing famous pictures for profit on the black market, so Brenton’s play which focuses on the existence of art as a crime in itself is both unusual and fascinating. Art plays are few and far between – Red or the musical Sunday in the Park with George that considers the process of the artist – whereas The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is part interrogation drama, part thriller and part philosophical debate on the consequences of artistic expression in a society where freedom of speech is tightly controlled.
It is clear this production was recorded for posterity rather than as a film for public showing, with visibly distracted (or engaged) cast members and stagehands in the back of every shot. The camera sometimes has to focus in on a screen where the stage audience can see the interior of the bathroom or aerial views of the set rather than cutting to the relay from that angle. Yet, the growing strangeness and emotional impact of Brenton’s play still makes for a riveting watch that belies its two-hour running time.
Using dramatised scenes interspersed with occasional asides from Ai Wiewei to the audience giving insight into his captivity or his attempts to strengthen his mind to resist his accusers, the play is intriguingly set in Ashley Martin Davis’ clean white gallery / studio-like space where a large packing crate unfolds into the various rooms where the artist was questioned and confined. The point is the cost of art, a cost we never see as we (used to) wander around the Tate of the National Gallery, not of monetary value but of the personal freedom, political standing and even the soul of the person who created it, all hidden by the serene calm of our display spaces.
Brenton uses the tools of both absurdist theatre and of the spy thriller, creating a Kafka-esque examination of justice and freedom in a repressive regime when the accused man is not allowed to know his crime. There is a lot of waiting in this play, reflected in uncomfortable close-ups of Benedict Wong’s Weiwei, waiting to be seen, waiting for hours to pass and decisions to be made, and James Macdonald is unafraid of letting the time spin out before things happen. Brenton even plays with concepts of victimhood, showing that interrogators and guards are just conscripted parts of a system they too cannot control, while the bureaucrats in charge are the very embodiment of the banality of evil, tending to office plants while casually discussing torture.
As Ai Weiwei Wong is a perfect combination of incredulous victim, wearied and perplexed by his arrest, and defiant social reformer whose firecracker spirit wants freedom and tolerance within society to allow art to flourish. He refuses to be defeated or outmanoeuvred in the intense interrogation scenes. Wong’s performance runs the gamut of emotions, capturing the claustrophobic nature of his confinement, the peaks and troughs of his positivity as well as the personable, kindly nature of the artist who ultimately charms his captors, particularly ‘The Professor’ (David Lee Jones) with whom he builds an amusing rapport.
The Arrest of Ai Weiwei has a lot to say about the individual right to civil liberties which may feel especially pertinent as questions about emerging from our own lockdown persist, while the process of eroding someone’s resolve through sheer persistence is well conceived. Whether you think, like Ai Weiwei’s jailers, that art is just an expensive scam or something more fundamental, Brenton’s play shows us that the surface beauty we so admire has far deeper stories to tell.
Streaming here until 3 May 2020