Story of Ai Weiwei’s ordeal at hands of brutal regime comes to stage

Artist Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait shoot in Munich on September 7, 2009

Artist Ai Weiwei poses for a portrait shoot in Munich on September 7, 2009 - Credit: Archant

A journalist’s encounter with an artist imprisoned by the Chinese government has inspired a new play

‘I don’t know why he trusted me,” says Barnaby Martin. “I guess I was just the only one who turned up.”

Considering the myth and controversy that has surrounded Ai Weiwei’s infamous 81-day imprisonment, Martin is refreshingly humble about his part in its documentation – despite it inspiring Hampstead Theatre’s new production, #aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei. Rebutting myths that he had to dodge secret police and the Chinese government to reach the artist, the writer insists that it was only ever his subject who was in true danger.

One of the world’s leading contemporary artists, Weiwei found widespread recognition following his sunflower seed exhibition at the Tate and his role in the design of the Beijing National Stadium.

However, he has always been as much a social activist as an artist and, in April 2011, this led to his highly criticised and publicised arrest by his native government. When he was released on bail, no-one, not even journalists, went near the artist for fear of the Chinese Communist Party. No-one, that is, apart from Martin, who was chasing up an interview with Weiwei that had been postponed by the arrest.

“I’d met Ai before, in England, years ago, when I was doing a book on Chinese art, since he’d been in the Stars group in the 1970s. When I went to see him this time, about nine or ten days after his release, he was isolated,” says 40-year-old Martin. “He was in his house, a compound on the outskirts of Beijing near the airport, completely shell-shocked and traumatised. So we decided to make a record, an historic record of his imprisonment while it was still fresh in his mind.”


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Such freshness proved an invaluable source for Howard Brenton, who was contacted by Hampstead Theatre’s Greg Ripley-Dugan after Martin hit a brick wall trying to write the play himself. Admitting that his own version lacked the drama necessary for good theatre, Martin couldn’t be happier with the results, praising Brenton and director James McDonald’s faithfulness to the interviews as well as Benedict Wong’s performance as Weiwei.

“Wong is incredible. I met him about four weeks ago and he’s put on about two-and-a-half stone for the role. It’s like how De Niro binged on pasta before Raging Bull. I hope he can actually shift it afterwards.”

Reflecting on Weiwei’s time while arrested, however, it becomes clear that the main weight the artist had to overcome was mental. Having to keep eye contact at all times with his guards, who even oversaw him going to the toilet, he faced extreme loneliness when not attempting to overcome significant cultural differences with his captors.

“The interrogations were also interesting because there was a clash between this world-leading conceptual artist and the Beijing police, who didn’t really know what to do with him. They’re used to being rough with murderers and thieves, but here was this person who wasn’t a criminal.

“They didn’t understand. They’d look at his art and say, ‘This is bullshit, it costs 1p to make and you’re selling it for 20, you’re a conman’.”

This ideology, of course, is much indebted to the Cultural Revolution instigated by Mao Zedong in the 1960s. During this period, says Martin, artists became known as “art workers”, with the former being dismissed as a product of the bourgeoisie. Those who knew how to speak French were assaulted, those who owned violins saw their houses smashed and ruined. In such a climate, it is no surprise that Weiwei’s father, himself a famous poet, faced exile and was forced to move his family to Xinjiang for 15 years, reduced to finding work cleaning latrines.

“After 11 days, Weiwei was moved to a military compound because the police were getting nowhere,” Martin continues. “This military interrogator wasn’t completely ignorant, though, he was of similar age so both had lived before the Cultural Revolution.

“He came round to Weiwei’s idea that modern art could be something else, change conceptions. Even these police have to be aware the party can go too far.”


If much of this sounds like Weiwei bonded with his guards and had it easier than most prisoners, it is because he did. Yet, as Martin notes, the artist was more indebted to China’s coincidental push for good press at the time than he was to his own celebrity. In one of the few scenes where the play does have to fictionalise events, the true extent of the Chinese government’s cruelty becomes apparent.

“There were a couple of scenes we had to imagine, though, like the debate in the Politburo about what to do with Weiwei. This would have been, at the time, a nine-man standing committee of cold, ruthless people who had climbed all the way to the top of the Communist Party. Believe me, they’d have wanted him shot. Most of their prisoners were physically tortured, kept for years – Ai got off lightly.”

No stranger himself to China, Martin’s concern for the country is clear. Having family ties in Beijing, where he also lived in 1990, he maintains that the current government, despite its recent economic success, will not last.

“Many Chinese people think ‘why does Weiwei keep complaining when China is becoming so rich and powerful?’ He’s doing it because the people still aren’t free. They’re quiet now but what if China went into recession?”

It is a question that might not be as unlikely as it seems. As Martin notes, China’s one-child policy, implemented to ease the rate of population growth, will soon mean that there will be an unhealthy imbalance between the number of elderly citizens and those trusted to care for them economically. In such a scenario, will it be the job of people like Weiwei to lead the revolution?

“He’s never distinguished between social activism and art,” Martin concludes, “but modern art is a new bridge to reality, a bridge that isn’t allowed in China.

“The problem over here is that how many of us could name three living Chinese people or say three words of Chinese? It’s pretty bad that we have a cultural gap like that. If the world is getting smaller, we have to have some shared vision for it.”

#aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei is on at Hampstead Theatre until May 18. A live performance will be streamed over the Internet free tomorrow (Friday).