THEATRE AT HOME REVIEW: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei ★★★
#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
Hampstead Theatre, London
Thursday 11th April - Saturday 18th May 2013
In the final installment of their Theatre at Home season during lockdown, Hampstead Theatre presents their 2013 politically charged drama that focuses on Artist Ai Weiwei’s sudden arrest at Beijing Airport on 3rd April 2011, and the 81 days that followed in which he disappeared from view of everyone and the media. Howard Brenton’s script does a remarkable job in bringing stillness and tension to his writing through scenes confined in small locations, laid out bare to the audience with the stylylistic exhibition staging from Ashley Martin Davis, who puts our imagination at the forefront as we recount those 3 months were Weiwei was tested to his limits as an artist who passionately adhered to his freedom of speech.
Taking on the titular role, Benedict Wong is absorbing as Weiwei in a way that keeps you mesmerised by his scale of emotion that he can conjure up in a heartbeat; when interrogated against his own will and being made to repeat a phrase he once wrote on his blog during his career, Wong’s anger is skillfully built in such a way that you know as an audience it’s only a matter of time before the human ticking time bomb is due to erupt. The way he juggles innocence to obedience with such confidence also feels incredibly natural in his presence, with James Macdonald’s direction playing a huge factor in this decision, whilst accounts from Barnaby Martin’s 2013 book ‘Hanging Man’ would have also been vital for all creatives to get a wider sense of understanding the factual response of the whole trial.
Whilst Wong contrives an array of emotions throughout, what #AIWW lacks is the true sense of creatively telling a story through a clear theatrical mind, as this is very much a re-enactment to the tribulation that Weiwei endured, something that a couple of hours reading Martin’s book would probably suffice instead; as Weiwei’s deatiners, Andrew Koji and Christpher Gosh straight away come equipped with the classic spy trope that channels hilarity rather than haunting, as they play mobile phone games, or follow Weiwei into the room’s toilet, which we get to watch through a camera surveillance screen either side of the stage.
Furthermore, whilst Davis’ playing space is made up of the ensemble around the outsides watching on from their respective positions, in what can only be described as a mirror to the real-life journalistic nature that Weiwei experienced coming out of confinement, I found that the concept didn’t drive their purpose to the full extent; they simply faded into the background and become forgotten as the piece enters into its climax, which leaves Wong alone on stage as he recounts the powerful force behind the Jasmine Revolution, which unpacks the overpowering nature of China as a Government, whilst examining a museum artifact in the closing moments.
Overall, whilst #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei develops coherently in bringing Benedict Wong’s intense portrayal to life on stage with a masterclass of emotion, it has to be said that the piece feels more like a factual experience more suited for a documentary film rather than being produced on stage, as there is very little creativity besides Ashley Martin Davis’ minimalistic yet effective set design to feast your eyes and ears on, with the tension surrounding Weiwei’s ordeal never reaches its full potential in a way that would make you feel satisfied.