Howard Brenton’s play is based on the artist Ai Weiwei’s account of 81 days of detention by the Chinese authorities, as described in journalist Barnaby Martin’s book The Hanging Man. Director James Macdonald presents it as a piece of modern art. The theatre’s stage has been stripped back to whitewashed walls. The four sides of a huge crate open up like a cumbersome flower revealing the artist, played by Benedict Wong, as exhibit. The box also serves as the two rooms in which Weiwei is interrogated. This is torment by boredom, intimidation and, occasionally, by threat of violence. It’s cycle that establishes its own rhythm on Weiwei’s life.
However, it’s clear that the process is as difficult on the artist’s guards — who sit inches away from their charge, staring intently staring at him. And slowly, perhaps too optimistically, their humanity is revealed.
A dialogue about art ensues. Weiwei explains how classical art can no longer cope with modern life, hence the piece for which he photographed his middle finger pointing skywards at various iconic tourist destinations including Beijing. No, it wasn’t an obscene gesture directed at the Chinese government, but a means to show how the artist’s tool of perspective (the finger) had changed. Maybe a horizontal thumb would have been less easy to misinterpret. The dialogue, which in one scene is conducted in ventriloquist mode to prevent the authorities’ cameras from lip-reading, culminates in a moment of triumph with Weiwei punching the air with a “Yes”. The guards have finally understood that their prisoner is a Dadaist.
Brenton and Macdonald convey the mix of absurdity and fear that accompanies being at the whim of a merciless dictatorship. But the wrong kind of indignant outrage informs this evening. When Weiwei is not (understandably) submitting to the orders of the guards, he exhibits what seems to me to be a particular brand of incredulity over his treatment. It is hard to define which brand exactly. But here is a man being treated unforgivably badly and who is (again understandably) outraged that his freedom and freedom of expression have been curtailed. And then it hit me.
The brand of outrage expressed by Wong’s Weiwei could be from any one of us — in this country. His outrage is a Western, scandalised kind. There were moments when I almost expected Weiwei to threaten his guards with a letter to his local MP. What’s lacking is the wearisome, dehumanising grind that informs the plays of say, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who knew all about how the communist machine grinds individuals into nothing and whose plays transmitted the bleak truth of that simple fact.