A few days after China’s most famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei was released from jail in June 2011, writer Barnaby Martin called his old mobile phone number. Unexpectedly, Ai answered call. Through subsequent meetings and conversations Martin recorded a full and unparalleled account of Ai Weiwei’s incarceration, from his airport detention to final release.
#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is a new play by Howard Brenton, based on Barnaby Martin’s novel and directed by James Macdonald, showing now at the Hampstead Theatre. Index on Censorship is taking part in the worldwide live web streaming of the play, from 1930GMT on Friday 19 April.
This elegant performance centres on communication and miscommunication. In a series of baffling scenes the artist tries and fails to convey his version of events to a steady stream of guards, interrogators and officials who do not want to know. Challenged about his blog, Ai replies, “It’s the net, it’s freedom, why can I not say what I want? I’m human.”
He might as well be inhabiting a different world. In rare moments when we watch prisoner and guards communicating, for instance about how to cook Beijing noodles, it feels like Ai Weiwei might have won. His belief in the basic human need to think, believe and act freely has permeated even the Party’s most brain-washed foot soldiers.
These moments don’t last long, however. Although he was never beaten, Ai emerged from 81 days of imprisonment and psychological torture a different man.
This production serves as a reminder that arguments for national security and “harmony” will always be used in authoritarian regimes to limit freedom and condemn artists as “hooligans” and “conmen”, guilty of subverting state power. But all that Ai Weiwei claims to have been doing was depicting “humanity”, “nakedness” and “life”.
Index is glad to support Hampstead Theatre’s live streaming of #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. You can watch it live from 19:30GMT on Friday 19 April