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Theatre review: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei

Powerful: James Macdonald portrays artist Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment in China

REVIEW

#aiww: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei

Streaming until Sunday, hampsteadtheatre.com ★★★★✩

IF LOCKDOWN is becoming a grind, imagine spending it in a tiny cell with two Chinese Liberation Army guards, breathing down your neck even when you sleep and use the bathroom. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent 81 days under such conditions, in an absurdist nightmare of Kafka-esque proportions during which Chinese interrogators repeatedly demanded he confess without clarifying what crime he had been accused of. The aim is a broken soul, not a broken body, smiles the suave nameless director in charge of Weiwei’s case. Boredom, not violence, is the most effective punishment.

James Macdonald’s production, based on Barnaby Martin’s true account of Weiwei’s detention and first staged at Hampstead in 2013, immerses the audience in the soul-breaking tedium of incarceration a little too well. As Benedict Wong’s bemused, despairing Weiwei spends days in the same chair, every empty hour repeating itself, a dull, exhausted ache starts to gnaw at your brain. Yet the flashes of surreal black comedy cleverly chip away at the image of China as an all-powerful inscrutable machine. The first two goons looking after Weiwei play Super Mario on their phones and fall asleep. The second pair admit they only joined the army because of the uniforms. His first interrogator has no idea who Weiwei even is, barking at him: who did you murder?

Intriguingly, several of his tormentors gradually become allies, after a fashion. They are also victims, of a system whose most powerful political weapon is a paralysing enforced homogeneity and which, among other things, rigorously wards against the questioning complexities of conceptual art. Neatly, Macdonald casts Weiwei’s cell as an installation in a gallery, in an act of defiance against a regime that only released him to prevent his imprisonment from becoming his greatest work.