ONE of theatre’s many advantages is that it is a nimble art form. Ai Weiwei, the renowned Chinese artist and long-time thorn in the side of his country’s authorities, was imprisoned for 81 days in the summer of 2011.
On his release, he spoke to journalist Barnaby Martin about his experiences. Martin wrote a book about it, but before it was even published Howard Brenton was hard at work dramatising Ai’s traumatic and surreal treatment. Hampstead Theatre, acting on admirable good faith, found an early production slot for the then unfinished script. It feels churlish to criticise a project that has so much goodness at its core, but the double-edged compliment I would pay Brenton and director James Macdonald is that they have created an authentically stultifying experience. There’s very little placing of Ai (Benedict Wong) into any context; the piece exists in an atmosphere as intense and claustrophobic as the incarceration. It’s repetitive, monotonous and punctuated by lengthy silences – exactly what the free-speech campaigner was forced to endure. What comes across powerfully is the intense invasion of privacy. Every movement, for which he must first ask permission, is scrutinised. His two guards, who stand at the foot and side of his bed, tell him which sleeping position to adopt.
Wong suggests a lovely, battered honesty, only rarely losing his composure. His tiny cell, a wooden box in the middle of a bright white space, looks like an art installation in a modish gallery.
Befitting Ai’s preoccupations, Macdonald has come up with a self-consciously “open” production. The backstage scenery docks are revealed regularly and stage hands chat freely as they shift furniture between scenes. In the most bittersweet way, this play shows that art – and artists – still matter.