A new play about dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London. It is based on Barnaby Martin’s book “Hanging Man,” which was about the 81 days the artist spent in custody in 2011. Howard Brenton’s play is based on conversations during which the artist described that period – by turns surreal, hilarious, and terrifying.
Howard Brenton said: “Ai Weiwei was arrested for 81 days in 2011. At the time of the Arab Spring he was picked up along with a lot of other people China and people thought, “Oh, he’s disappeared into the system forever, we are never going to see him again”. But 81 days later he was released, a stone lighter, juddered, rather confused. His release was in a way a mystery, so I’ve tried to dramatise not only what happened to him in the account he gave to Barnaby Martin, but how the officials decided to release him, what the debate was in the higher reaches of the national government.”
He acknowledges however, that the production might make things even harder for Ai Weiwei in China: “Well, he asked for it to be done, and to my immense relief he liked the script. Indeed he sent it back with some Chinese names and typos corrected and he’s issued a statement saying he is supporting the play. I am very aware that it is not dangerous for me to write it, it is dangerous for him for me to write it, but then that’s his choice and it’s a privilege to be part of this project.”
Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s best-loved and most famous artists, but at home in China he has been alternately encouraged, tolerated and harassed by officialdom. He is currently barred from leaving China.