I spent last weekend in London and saw two plays. Although they were completely different, the first was #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at the Hampstead Theatre and the second Untold Stories: two autobiographical pieces by Alan Bennett at the Duchess Theatre, they were disappointing for the same reason.
#aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei tells the true story of his arrest by the Chinese government in Beijing airport as he was boarding a flight to Taipei. The charge was that he “could damage state security”. After the arrest Weiwei disappeared for 81 days.
Howard Brenton wrote a play based on his conversations with Ai Weiwei after his release. The arrest and the disappearance are, no doubt, dramatic raw material and could have made an exciting and critical play had Brenton explored that area rather than dealt, in a most predictable way, with the question of what is art.
In the program notes by Edward Hall the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre he explains his choice of that topic: ”We had been looking for a play about China since starting in Hampstead and knew that it was a subject that Howard Brenton was keen to explore. The rise of China is clearly one of the most important developments of modern times but it has hardly been discussed.”
The play that Brenton wrote has nothing novel to say about China, rather it uses the same old binary approach between the brave dissident artist whose work is banned, and the boorish Communists who throw him to jail because he makes money from an art that they cannot understand. I found the whole discussion condescending and tedious and stayed detached from what was on the stage almost until the end. However, after his release, in the final soliloquy when Ai Weiwei shatters an ancient Chinese vase then I felt anger and was almost ready to put him in prison again. There must have been another way to condemn the arbitrary and brutal actions of the Chinese. But what I saw was an arrogant and disrespectful act not toward the regime but rather toward the Chinese heritage as a whole.
There is nothing wrong with questioning the merit of Weiwei's art and it was valid to doubt the sincerity of his installations. It was disappointing for me to realize that in the 21st century a British play about China would still follow the old reductionist post-Colonial approach .
The Second play Untold Stories consists of two pieces based on Alan Bennett’s memoir A Life Like Other People’s. In both pieces Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett. In the first short one Hymn, Jennings, accompanied by a string quartet, talks about music in his childhood. The second one Cocktail Sticks explores his relationship between his art and its buographical sources. I found the two pieces of Untold Stories disappointing; here too the old discussion of art imitating life was tiresome. There were hints in the play to directions that for me could have shown promise like his mother’s recurrent depression and her yearning for a more exciting life (a life in which people sip cocktails) but those topics were never developed..
I go to the theatre for the drama—the action. Theatre is the medium for showing, especially as the first play is about a visual artist and the second about a playwright. In a peculiar way these two very different plays chose the approach of telling and what they were telling has already been told a hundred time.
I think that next time I am in London I won’t take a chance and go see the king of Showing, Shakespeare of course.