‘The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’

I’m finally playing catch up with blog posts that really should have been written earlier in the month, even at the end of last month, so there might be a couple posted a day from me at the moment…which isn’t a bad thing right? You’ll get to see and read about what’s been keeping me so busy, away from blogging land and Rachel’s words.

At the end of April, I was invited by Hampstead Theatre in London to join their press and blogger’s night to review ‘The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’, a stage production of the said happening by Howard Brenton. I’d already read and heard on the grapevine many things about this show, so went with somewhat mixed preconceived opinion about what it was going to be like. How could Ai Weiwei’s arrest be played out without humour, stereotyping, an overplay of “Chineseness”…without what I call the Ai Weiwei Disneyfication effect of China and contemporary Chinese art? Below are rehearsal shots taken by Stephen Cummiskey.

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei / Hampstead Theatre

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei / Hampstead Theatre

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei / Hampstead Theatre

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The set and the clever camera play must be credited…the double surveillance screens on stage right and left played out real-time footage of what was within a contained centre unit, the detention and interrogation cell, which acted as an artwork in itself, replicating, in part, a packed crated artwork, as if Ai Weiwei was an “artwork” as such, which in a sense he is…it also presented a stage within a stage, where the interrogation room became a show within a show. Throughout the entire performance, actors and actresses would take photographs, filming the show on cameras and their mobile phones…they were periphery to the main actors…recording, documenting and commenting on the censorship and surveillance of people in China. The reality of constantly knowing that you are watched in China. When actors and actresses were not in role, they would sit on two rows of chairs, left and right of the stage, acting as an audience within an audience. The double dialogue was constantly at play in the performance. To indicate a change in time, the audience within the audience would chant “next day” or “an hour later” signifying a unification of the people…the loss of independence perhaps of a nations voice.

There was a constant and brutal battle between an air of questioning and instruction…the unknown to the definitive answer…fiction to fact. Pop culture interludes were thrown in here and there from the guard playing Super Mario on this phone to the football t-shirt worn by one of the inspectors. A play on Chinese stereotypes to provide a reference point for Western viewers? The performance clearly attempted to define power struggles not just limited to China…control of systems at varying levels from the Communist party to the public, from Ai Weiwei to control of the guards…the acknowledgment of the arts in China and how they are perceived (on one level) by the West. There was odd comedic value that would pop up here and there in dialogue, a little absurd and illogical, representative of Ai Weiwei himself in addition to how things are in China…often a surprise and laughable. The musical interludes seem to reinforce the idea of the nation’s power where the silent fragments on stage I felt were not representative of the constant noise, the “soundtrack” of what China really was…something that you can’t escape when you live out there. It repeatedly questioned as to whether Ai Weiwei was a “hooligan? con man? swindler? bigamist? fraud?”…what was he? Or more as I saw it, he was different things to different people.

I couldn’t help question whether ‘The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’ being in English lost value and understanding of the story, and the culture of China. It did feel wrong somehow for it to be presented through an English dialogue, by largely English or Chinese-British actors, where even the musical soundtrack was translated into English song. Of course it would have “read” differently if in China and in Chinese…for starters it probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen in China. Ai Weiwei read the screenplay, in addition to other Chinese consultancy, sending it back with typos and name changes, but it is still unknown as to how much is a reality and how much is fiction.

Many of you who have lived and worked in China, when you see Western representations of China come to the fore, see them as often questionable in content and context. This play was successful in its set and design, selection and strength of the British and Chinese-British actors and actresses, which provided a “transcultural” parallel, however the story in part gave a “polluted” perspective of China, telling viewers a very specific perspective of how the Chinese government engages with its culturally engaged public. The play presented an absurd reality of something that I experienced first hand during Ai Weiwei’s studio protest party in late 2010 (my words on this can be read here). It questioned whether art was a system or a concept, clearly a presentation of an East-West interpretation. How much of the content is romanticised from Ai Weiwei’s memories…”widow effect” as such”…dramaticised, or as I said before Chinese art and China is Disneyfied? It is a response to the regime and to the Western press, focussing on the wider global domain, on censorship and power controls in China as well as Syria, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East. Who’s responsibility is it to control? Is it an over reaction? Did the audience expect this play to give an insight into change in China, the politics of China, Beijing, contemporary Chinese art and Ai Weiwei? The one thing it did show was how torture can break the soul, and how strong the soul can be, ultimately how faith in mankind is so important in this world…something I live by in my own life everyday. The power of just one person is impossible to comprehend sometimes.

“His greatest work became his greatest imprisonment.”

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