The art of war

The-Arrest-of-Ai-Weiwei-3‘How do you police symbolic acts?’

In 2011, millions of people across the globe watched and waited for news of renowned conceptual artist Ai Weiwei, incarcerated by Chinese state officials for 81 days on spurious grounds.

Last Friday, an astonishing 15,000 tuned in to the Hampstead Theatre’s free live stream of Howard Brenton’s The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, available on YouTube for 24 hours. As a demonstration of the play’s overriding theme, the power of politically charged art in the democratic digital age, it had a compelling symbolism.

Brenton was last at the Hampstead with 55 Days, and in his depiction of both Charles I’s downfall and Ai Weiwei’s ordeal (the latter based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man) his skill lies in finding relatable human minutiae within world-changing events, preventing his plays from becoming lectures.

Of course, there’s no escaping the didactic element in a Kafkaesque drama depicting the battle between a free-thinking artist and an oppressive state, but Brenton avoids a total whitewash by asking insightful questions about the use of art as a tool for provocation.

Read my full Bargain Theatreland review here

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