MagazinesPost Magazine
SUNDAY MORNING

City scope: the London Ai

Anna Chen in London

 

It has been well documented that the more the central government tries to blackball and impede dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the more support and sympathy he garners and the more his stock rises overseas.

Now he has even been made into a work of art himself. Or rather his experiences at the hands of his tormentors have: Ai is the eponymous hero of Howard Brenton's much-praised play #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (the hashtag refers to Ai's prodigious Twitter habit), which is now playing to capacity audiences at London's Hampstead Theatre.

For a man whose movements are so restricted at home, his ubiquity in the British capital these days is astonishing. In October, Ai was given guest editorship of the New Statesman, the weekly political and cultural organ of the British centre-left whose former contributors include that great defender of free speech George Orwell. As its one-off helmsman, Ai dedicated the entire edition to issues most likely to annoy the hell out of the Chinese government: Tibet, censorship, the treatment of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, those tax problems he's been having. You name it, he stirred it.

Brenton's play, which runs until May 18, is unlikely to have members of the National People's Congress applauding either. It dramatises the period of Ai's Kafkaesque internment, from his arrest at Beijing airport as he was waiting to catch a flight to Hong Kong, to his release 81 days later.

To add to official discomfiture, the play became a full-blown internet event when it was live-streamed around the world on April 19. According to members of the cast, the 200,000 who viewed it included - in China - Ai himself and fellow dissident Hu Jia.

Meanwhile, Chinese audiences in London have been enjoying the production - described by the Financial Times as "a modest yet tremendously powerful piece of political theatre" - on several fronts. Coming in the wake of a furore over the Royal Shakespeare Company casting almost exclusively white actors in The Orphan of Zhao, the all-East Asian cast has been packing them in at the Hampstead.

In the title role, the excellent Benedict Wong - already an established movie actor and a favourite of director Danny Boyle - bears an uncanny resemblance to the man himself. He'd probably make a brilliant double should Ai ever "disappear" again, but it's unlikely he'd fancy walking in the artist's shoes for long offstage.

 

Share

 

Send to a friend

To forward this article using your default email client (e.g. Outlook), click here.

City scope: the London Ai

Enter multiple addresses separated by commas(,)

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive