On April 3rd 2011, as he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong, Chinese conceptual artist and political activist Ai Weiwei (he of the millions of porcelain Sunflower Seeds exhibited at Tate Modern) was detained at the airport and placed under arrest.
For 81 days he was held prisoner, with his captors seemingly as confused as he was as to the precise nature of his crime.
Director James Macdonald stages Howard Brenton’s new play (based on Barnaby Martin’s interviews and apparently sanctioned by the artist himself) into something resembling an art installation – the sides of a large container crate at the centre of a vast whitewashed space crash down to reveal first one, then the second, of the rooms within which Ai Weiwei was incarcerated.
As he sits, cuffed to a chair, closely flanked by pairs of intimidating guards who bellow orders and watch and regulate his every move (even toilet breaks afford no privacy), the repetitive tedium of his enforced confinement oozes out to infect the audience. Effective perhaps, though not always dramatically involving.
But Benedict Wong’s Ai Weiwei convincingly conveys the fear of being beaten by interrogators more used to dealing with murder cases, and the frustration of being accused of being both a swindler and a conman who subverts state power with overpriced symbolic art.
And there are moments of humour, too (in an exchange about the best way to cook noodles and, surprisingly, in the army guards’ complicity in outwitting the surveillance cameras which monitor them too) until Ai Weiwei, released at last, makes a final act of defiant demolition.
Hampstead, Eton Avenue, NW3 3EU
Tube | Swiss Cottage
Until 18th May
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey