Howard Brenton’s #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei draws on conversations between the Chinese artist with British journalist Barnaby Martin about Ai’s imprisonment in 2011.
The hashtag in the title is a reference to Mr Ai’s prolific use of the social networking site Twitter, where he has more than 200,000 followers.
After he was released, the government claimed that his 81-day imprisonment related to tax evasion.
The play, directed by James Macdonald, stars Benedict Wong as Ai Weiwei.
The BBC’s Tim Masters spoke to the playwright Howard Brenton following on opening night at Hampstead Theatre in London.
#aiww ..THE ARREST OF AI WEIWEI.
Arrest of Ai Weiwei play has world premiere in London
Ai Weiwei London
Arrest of Ai Weiwei
THE Twitter account of Ai Weiwei, China’s foremost artist-activist, fell silent when he was arrested on April 3rd. Chinese state media suggest that he is guilty of “economic crimes” and a bevy of other reputation-killers such as plagiarism and being “erratic.” But his imprisonment is clearly a means of shutting him up. A forceful advocate of democracy and free speech, Mr Ai used his blog to confront the fictions of government propaganda. With belligerent conviction, he railed against the inhumanity of a regime with no respect for the truth.
“Twitter is most suitable for me. In the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella,” says Mr Ai in an interview at the back of “Ai Weiwei’s Blog“, a collection of over a hundred translated pieces culled from over 2,700 posts. Mr Ai’s father, Ai Qing, was a poet who was deemed an enemy of the state in 1957, rehabilitated only when the Cultural Revolution died down in 1976. But Mr Ai had written very little himself. In fact, the visual artist barely knew how to type when he was invited by Sina, China’s largest internet portal, to write a blog for their website.
On 3 April 2011, as he was boarding a flight to Taipei, the Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport. Advised merely that his travel “could damage state security”, he was escorted to a van by officials after which he disappeared for 81 days. On his release, the government claimed that his imprisonment related to tax evasion.
Howard Brenton’s new play is based on recent conversations with Ai in which he told the story of that imprisonment – by turns surreal, hilarious, and terrifying. A portrait of the Artist in extreme conditions, it is also an affirmation of the centrality of Art and of freedom of speech in civilised society.