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#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei Hampstead Theatre HHHHI

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For much of Howard Brenton’s #aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei, the audience is lured into believing the state’s sheer ignorance is the main reason for the artist’s 81-day imprisonment. A police squad who assume they’re questioning him for murder, and a military confused by the concept of art, provide a perverse comedy as we watch Weiwei’s captors slowly unravel while they attempt to break his spirit.

Resonant moment

One of the most resonant moments is when, away from the claustrophobic and innovatively designed interrogation room, two high- ranking Communist Party politicians realise imprisoning Weiwei could become his greatest artwork. Describing themselves as sons of exiles and prisoners, it becomes apparent that awareness of art and politics alone does not guarantee enlightenment in this dystopian reality.

Articulating China’s political corruption, however, is only one aspect of an ambitious production that attempts to capture the difficulties Weiwei had to overcome internally as well as externally. This is impressively achieved by Benedict Wong, whose depiction of Weiwei’s frustration and loneliness is aided by a dedicated effort to resemble his famous rounded appearance.

It is to Brenton’s credit that such professionalism extends to the rest of the primarily Anglo-Asian cast – no mean feat when, poetically, none of their characters are even granted names. In particular, David Lee-Jones stands out as a repressed, chain-smoking policeman and David K. S. Tse as a senior politician with Bond villain-esque sophistication.

Rallying support

Largely under surgical brightness and with little instrumental accompaniment, one of director James Macdonald’s most intriguing decisions is to have his production team sit on stage like a second audience, often interacting with and becoming part of the cast during scene changes. As Wong delivers his closing speech, one possible reason for this becomes clear. While one man can continue to fight against oppression so publically, he can do little alone – emphasised by the real Weiwei’s enforced absence from the evening. For this story to truly end, perhaps it is one his adoring public must also play a part in.

Until May 18.

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