Howard Brenton's #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is about the detainment and interrogation of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities in 2011. The play, which is based on Ai Weiwei’s own account in Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man (first published March 2013), was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 11 April 2013.
On 3 April 2011, as he was boarding a flight to Taipei, 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 eighty-one days. The play depicts the story of his detention and the relationships he develops with his captors. It is a portrait of the artist in extreme conditions and also an affirmation of the centrality of art and freedom of speech in civilised society.
The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by James Macdonald with Benedict Wong in the title role.
One of the performances at Hampstead Theatre – the one on Friday 19 April – was live-streamed over the internet for a worldwide audience to watch for free. Ai Weiwei, in a comment posted on Hampstead Theatre's website on 10 April 2013 (accessible here: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/news/2013/04/aiww-the-arrest-of-ai-weiwei-to-be-live-streamed-across-the-world/), said: ‘China is a society that forbids any flow of the information and freedom of speech. This is on record, so everybody should know this. I am delighted that #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei will be livestreamed to the world. It will bring the play’s themes of art and society, freedom of speech and openness, the individual and the state to a new, broad and receptive global audience. Without freedom of speech there is no modern world – just a barbaric one. I’d like to thank my close friend Larry Warsh and Hampstead Theatre for supporting the story by allowing it to be heard on a much bigger scale – and for free, which is true to its spirit. I would really like to be there on opening night but unfortunately my passport still hasn’t been returned to me.’