I have a horrible feeling that plays (and bands, and films, and celebrities, and babies, and pets) with hashtags in their name are going to become a fixture in the future. But I’ll let ‘#aiww – The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’ off on the grounds that there’s a legitimate point to it all: Howard Brenton’s play will be streamed for free at youtube.com/hampsteadtheatre on Friday night, an action that will presumably get the initials of the silenced Chinese artist trending across Twitter, in defiance of his government’s attempts to muzzle him.
It’s this sense of a wider – perhaps even transcendent – purpose to what we’re watching that allows one to forgive the odd bit of flab in Brenton’s play and James MacDonald’s production.
The form is kind of polished agit prop meets Kafka-esque black comedy, as the excellent Benedict Wong – in a startlingly chameleonic physical transformation, piling on years, pounds and ‘that’ beard – plays Ai during his 81-day arrest of 2011. There’s plenty of fourth wall breaking and exposition on the Chinese government’s contempt for individual freedoms.
But wisely – and probably in anticipation of the fact paying audiences will be reasonably familiar with the case – Brenton doesn't take the tearjerker route. Instead he lards things with plenty of absurdist philosophical humour as the baffled Ai finds himself attempting to justify not only his work, but conceptual art in general to his not entirely unsympathetic captors.
The play is based upon Ai’s own account of his detention as relayed to author Barnaby Martin in a surreptitious interview conducted after his release, and it’s the sense of playful verity and the artist’s own wry eye for the quirks of his incarceration that make Brenton’s play a genuinely enjoyable watch.
Two sequences in which we see a pair of high-ranking CCP officials discussing the case feel speculative and somewhat flabby, and in general MacDonald’s production could do with a rigorous tightening up. But the observation made by one of the the officials that there is a danger of Ai turning his arrest into a work of art is the play’s key line. And to its credit Brenton’s enjoyable and moving play – with its neat art installation set – is that fear come true. Andrzej Lukowski