Fringe Online 2020
Directed by James Macdonald, Designed by Ashley Martin Davis, Costume Jack Galloway, Lighting Matthew Richardson, Choreographer Scott Ambler, Song Composer Simon Deacon, Sound Emma Laxton, Assistant Director Jennifer Tang, CSM Robyn Hardy, DSM Erin Murphy, ASM Susan Ellicott Costume Supervisor Deborah Andrews, Wardrobe Hannah Gibbs, Assistant Director Emma Bailey, Facial Hair by Sarah Weatherburn, scenic Construction by Illusion.
Film Editor Bridget Caldwell.
Live streamed January 11th 2014. Till May 3rd 22.00
On April 3rd 2011 the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei walked to Beijing airport to board a flight to Hong Kong. He already knew he’d be arrested. He’s held in solitary in two locations for 81 days, first by a Beijing murder squad, then the military. The worst is, it’s not solitary. Throughout, even on the toilet, two guards re inches from him.
Based on Barnaby Martin’s account and indeed talks with WeiWei himself, Howard Brenton’s play #AIWW The Arrest of Ai WeiWei, premiered at Hampstead in April 2013, is more than a superb piece of docu-drama.
For a start the theatre space mills like an art gallery with people swirling round an installation: when Benedict Wong as Wei Wei gets arrested the sides fall and this Portakabin in the middle of the gallery turns into an interrogation suite. But is it art?
Each interrogation over those 81 days feeds a narrative of how We Wei somehow resists the non-questions, the refusal of the authorities to charge or even interrogate Wei Wei properly. First he’s thrust into that murder squad investigation, threatening Minder Richard Rees, the wily ‘Professor’ David Lee-Jones – people who seem as bewildered as he. Despite the draconian nature of solitary, where he’s literally minded by two guards who sit inches away from him, there’s an erosion of discipline, flinching towards humanity.
Throughout Brenton taking his cues from Wei Wei and the account alternates interrogations with the comic horror of being regimented forced to say ‘report sir’, prefacing each request and marched up and down for exercise turning on a sixpence. It’s a technique that doesn’t overstay its welcome, as such phrases – always from Wong – as ‘two hours later’ or other jump-cuts concertina his incarceration.
The funniest sequence is when all four police interrogators argue with each other and Wei Wei the best method of cooking noodles. It’s an ice-breaker. The policemen show sympathy, the later soldiers from the countryside the wily Wei Wei infers, express bewilderment at their lot. They confide audio’s switched off so if you speak like a ventriloquist you can say anything.
Then there’s the interrogators. The surprise to Wei Wei that the Lee-Jones’ same character emerges (and to us that he’s not multi-roling, a playful trope) plus Orion Lee’s Ryan Giggs sportswear wearer. They grope towards understanding from accusations of Wei Wei conning the public. It’s close to poets in the former Soviet Union being ‘hooligans’.
And ‘con-man’ is thrown at Wei Wei despite his reminding them that market forces dictate and they’ve had 30 years of that in China. Wei Wei also quotes Marx and Mao fluently to support his claims, gaining grudging respect.
There’s fine work from bewildered 1st Policeman/Soldier Andrew Koji, and 2nd Policeman/Soldier Christopher Goh, Thin Young Man – a minute-taking geek – Andrew Leung who expresses a gleam of light like a sliver seen from a shut laptop, and that Giggs-loving Sportsman. He brings his own urinal: the Duchamp one in a photo. They get it: Dada they decide. Still Wei Wei’s own ambivalence indeed dismissal of his own art pushes not only anti-art but its efficacy, clay sunflower seeds, broken chairs hurled – as gestural in politics as art – to ask uneasy questions of itself. Brenton and Wei Wei scrupulously refuse all the moral high ground.
Before that every time in the latter compound Wei Wei wants to use the toilet, they crowd next to him and we see it vertically, thrown onto one of the large screens for the audience.
At one point the Chinese authorities A’s David K.S. Tse to bullish ‘crush –‘em’ security-paranoiac B, Junix Inocian (also that Airport official) indeed prophesy Wei Wei’s incarceration might become art, indeed Wei Wei turns into his own installation.
Ashley Martin Davis’ design with its strip-neon world is lit by Matthew Richardson. In these sections traditional Chinese bloom prints scroll down, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 plays (A loves it, B or Wu feels it’s torture) and an expensive vase looms in the background.
It’s both deeply creepy in its cultural appropriation, and beautifully sets off A’s shrewd gauging of how to destroy a soul, rather than body. A wishes to quell the half-articulated protest subtly, discrediting Wei Wei. B’s terror of state collapse after the Soviet model is viscerally expressed. Brenton’s speculative sally seems well-informed.
It’s Wei Wei’s interrogators who warm through layers of protocol, and the suddenness of the play’s resolve – mimicking what happens – rounds with a coup as everything strips away and we’re left with Wong a single prop and a speech.
Crafting what’s partly a verbatim account it’s Brenton’s dramatization of source material – with imagined sections – that so powerfully concertinas a continent’s politics and one artist’s refraction of it.
In this Wong is outstanding. It helps that Wong resembles Wei Wei too but that he gets the artists’ mix of apparent calm, the outrage of a man who knows his international worth, dignity in humiliation conveying a spark that can’t be extinguished, and outburst of rage and vulnerability. The other actors are first rate, often exquisitely funny, particularly Tse as A the canny suave party official, slippery Lee-Jones, left-field Orion and the simmering, dangerous Rees.
Choreographer Scott Ambler has much to do in a small space but the casual-seeming herding of gallery visitors is a feat neatly done. The actors here deserve listing too: Netizens Josie Bloom, Gregory Chapkin, Sam Churchill, Alexandra Donnachie, Roxy Dunn, Demi Jo franks, Ceri-Rose Larcombe, Amy McCallum, Craig Miller, Laura Riseborough, Joshua Sanderson.
It’s the sixth Hampstead AT Home to be streamed free via the Guardian and YouTube sites. Nothing in theatre lockdown has equalled the Hampstead series for championing contemporary plays of the last decade. And they were the first, starting on 22nd March. Hampstead deserve huge thanks and support for spearheading and filling this initiative with some of the most exciting online-streaming of these distracted times.