In some ways, I feel Like I’ve spent the entire last 25 years of my life getting ready to see and write about “#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei,” a new play currently showing at the Hampstead Theater. So I’m going to let it all rip here without trying to explain too much: but my interest in human rights in China, the evolution of modern China, and modern art are all going to come to a head in this review. So: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
In execution, “The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” is the most purely political play I’ve ever seen. It’s not designed to lecture the audience (except for a few minutes at the end) like “Earthquakes in London” or pretty much anything by George Bernard Shaw; instead, it’s actually the equivalent of a newspaper editorial, directly written as an attack. Its performance is part of the attack, and in order to achieve its goal, which is embarrassing the Chinese government, we, the audience, are required to be there; for a play embarrassing China means nothing if it only exists on paper. This play is being performed on a stage, seen by hundreds or even thousands of people, and reviewed in newspaper: its position, mocking Chinese officials as being stupid and petty and the Chinese government for being rigid and censorious, while simultaneously raising the profile of the treatment of political prisoners in China, is one that the government of China cannot help but be offended by. This play “ruins face” for China; it shows it to be a backward country dedicated to crushing any individual who dares speak against the state. China wants to appear like a modern state on the modern stage; this play peels away the facade of technological innovation and shows China to be just as much of a fascist regime as it ever was. And for this to count, for this to make its political point, for it to be a barb or a dart in China’s self image, it must be done in public.
So, in some senses, this is not designed to be a play that we see and enjoy; it’s a work of performance art. But still: it is a play. And as a play, well, if you’re not really into China or Ai Wei Wei, you might be a little bit bored. It’s no Kiss of the Spider Woman; there’s no moment when the layers peel away and we’re exposed to great art or some sort of, well, fabulous theatrical experience. It actually plays out rather flatly, with the Chinese officials who discuss Ai Wei Wei’s case inside a garden seeming completely artificial, and the “action” inside the places where he is kept prisoner, well, rather dull. In fact, you could make the argument that, as a political prisoner, 90 days of imprisonment in which he’s kept handcuffed to a chair but never beaten is actually a bit on the dull side. In fact, it doesn’t seem like particularly harsh treatment at all, except, of course, if you’re being forced to watch it. (It is, however, a good chance to get to learn about some of Ai Wei Wei’s art works besides his very famous “Sunflower Seeds,” and I am inspired to read up on them.)
I was also very interested in the presentation of Ai Wei Wei in this play, given that it’s based in interviews with Ai. Ai is very much an artist celebrity (or, in the view of the Chinese interrogators, a “con man”) whose art is in part predicated on his position as a dissident in society. At the end, he is freed in part because the officials think his imprisonment would serve Ai more than it would serve them. I remember thinking, when he was arrested, that China could hardly do more to improve his celebrity status and increase the value of his art. But is this play also serving to create “Ai Wei Wei, the legend?” As written, all of his captors turn to his side: the Beijing policemen talk noodle recipes with him; the soldiers speak to him without moving their lips; the transcriptionist at the end says he admires him and wants to shake his hand. Is any of that real? I kind of think Ai may have made all of that up to show how well he connects with everyday people – he even gets his last set of captors to learn about Dadaism. (My favorite moment: Ai being confronted with a picture of Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Brilliant!) But I can’t cross-check his story. It’s being presented as history, but I think it may all be self-serving hagiography.
So is this a good play? I think it’s important in terms of being a good piece of politics making some important points and poking a government that really needs to have its ugly side exposed to the world; but it’s dry and I suspect plays fast and loose with the facts. It may be good for people who are really into modern art, modern China, or human rights; it will be highly offensive to many Chinese people. And for other people, it may just be dull. I don’t expect it will stand the test of time, but one thing I feel certain about, “The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei” was a play that was meant to be talked about. And for all that his jailors said that Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds were a con because they couldn’t even grow (“They were just dirt!”), I say I disagree, because, for me, they, like this play, made beautiful flowers of thought bloom in my mind.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, April 12th, 2013. For another take on the same evening, please see the Monkey Matters blog.)