Posts Tagged ‘Benedict Wong’

This is one hell of a play. It’s ambitious and epic; a jigsaw puzzle that takes you three hours to complete. When it comes full circle at the end, you’re left with a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s why I go to the theatre so often – to come across one of these every now and again.

Joe is an American news photographer who took an iconic picture of a man’s face-off with a tank in Tiananmen Square on 4th June 1989. Many years later he gets a lead which makes him think the man survived and escaped to the US. What unravels is like a detective story. In China, we see what happens to anyone brave enough to expose things like pollution. In the US, we see how China’s economic power can bury just about anything.

Along the way, we meet politicians, market researchers, newspapermen, Chinese immigrants and policemen, but at its heart are the personal stories of Joe and his Chinese friend and source Zhang Lin. It never lets you go and fully justifies its length at just over three hours. It’s never predictable and moves from poignant to funny in a flash. I was enthralled. Es Devlin has designed a brilliant giant revolving cube on which images are projected and within which rooms open up for all of the many scenes. Lyndsey Turner’s staging is simply stunning.

Stephen Campbell Moore is on stage almost the whole time and he’s terrific. Benedict Wong can hardly have caught his breath as he left The Arrest of Ai Weiwei in Hampstead and travelled (with two other actors!) the five miles to Islington and he too is superb. There are lovely performances from Claudie Blakley as a British market researcher who falls for Joe, Nancy Crane as a US senator and Trevor Cooper as a newspaper head.

This is an unmissable theatrical feast which propels playwright Lucy Kirkwood into the premiere league.

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I had two reservations about this. Can you really make an interesting play about the arrest of a Chinese dissident, however important the issues are? Is Hampstead, with its somewhat conservative audience, the right theatre?

Well, the answer to the first question is a definite yes. What Howard Brenton has produced, at Ai Weiwei’s request, based on his account in Barnaby Martin’s book, is a multi-layered piece about freedom of expression, the absurd responses of tyrannies to dissidence, the cruelty & indignity of imprisonment & interrogation and a bit of a debate about art. Silence is used to create tension and illustrate boredom and both humour and humanity pop up in the most unlikely places.

We start with Ai Weiwei’s arrest at the airport, about to board a plane for Hong Kong. In the first segment, we see his initial detention and interrogation by the Beijing police with two young guards suffocating him the rest of the time, occasionally playing with their smartphones, dozing and playing games with one another to relieve their boredom. In the second, we have more interrogation but now in military detention with two soldiers now suffocating in a more formal way including watching him pee. In between, we glimpse some debates between politicians divided in how to deal with it all.

The detention, of course, has the effect of increasing the attention and negative publicity they seek to bury. Even the guards, soldiers & interrogators eventually hint at their personal sympathy. The pointlessness, dullness, cruelty and indignity of it all are clearly and cleverly presented in James Macdonald’s production. If an intelligent Chinese politician saw it, they would surely realise how misguided their policy is. He was of course released, so maybe they did.

Much of the success of the play is down to Benedict Wong’s outstanding central performance. He conveys defiance and determination but also frustration and hopelessness. It’s a nice touch to have the same two actors – Andrew Koji & Christopher Goh – play the young police guards and the well-drilled uniformed soldiers. In Ashley Martin Davies’ excellent design, the ‘cells’ cleverly open up from crates manoeuvred by ‘extras’ and giant painted scrolls and ornamental trees appear for the brief exchanges between politicians.

Despite its relatively short running time, and fewer words than most plays, it covers a lot of ground effectively and in depth. With regard to the second question, though, I do think its in the wrong theatre playing to the wrong audience. This is a Tricycle play on the Hampstead stage, but still, it’s on a stage and should be seen. I now have to reconcile my view of it all with two impending visits to China!

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