If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be jailed indefinitely in China, now’s your chance to see. British director Howard Brenton’s new play “#aiweiwei: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei” brings to life the Chinese artist’s recollection of the 81 days he spent in a 12′ by 24′ room in 2011 for no crime, under the constant, (mostly) silent surveillance of a pair of guards. Thanks to the Hampstead Theater’s decision to live stream tonight’s performance, the living nightmare is playing out in real time right now. Scroll down to watch.
The Huffington Post spoke with journalist Barnaby Martin, whose book of illicit interviews with Weiwei, “Hanging Man: The Arrest Of Ai Weiwei” provided the raw material for the play. Speaking from England, Martin told us what it was like to see his old friend so traumatized, and what he thinks of the stage version of reality.
The Huffington Post: You were the only journalist to talk to Weiwei after the Chinese government set him free. How did that happen?
Barnaby Martin: He was never actually formally arrested, of course. You don’t need to do that in China. They just take you off the street. It was very unusual that he came out. You usually disappear for ten years or something. After he was released, people were giving him a wide berth. They were afraid. Foreign journalists didn’t want to lose their work permits in China. So he was very isolated, sitting in his studio in Beijing, obviously in a state of trauma.
I went to visit him because I’ve known him for some time. We conceived of the idea of making some kind of account, a record of what exactly happened. If you’ve read, “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Dinesovich,” about the gulag experience in Russia, that was a sort of the model. Of course, this was 81 days.
HP: What was your process?
BM: We wanted to get down every detail, every conversation he could remember. Over a period of eight hours, we did a recording of what happened when he disappeared into the bowels of the beast. It’s a surreal story, very frightening and thoroughly gripping. The people interrogating him didn’t understand who he was and what his art meant. They thought he was a hooligan, a junk salesman in trouble. He had to convince them. That was one of the themes that ran through the interviews.
The book was meant to tell the story of China through the life of Ai Weiwei and his experience, to show people what was going on. Obviously, China spends a lot of money trying to convince the world that they’re civilized. In reality, they don’t behave like that in these darkened rooms. The idea is to shed some light on them.
HP: So what happens in these darkened rooms?
BM: Howard Brenton [the playwright who adapted “Hanging Man”] dramatized the account precisely. The bizarre conversations and the terror of it all. When you’re held, you’re effectively in solitary confinement. And yet you have two guards with you at all times. You’re not allowed to look at them, to talk to them. You’re chained to a chair.
HP: What happens if you do talk to them?
BM: You’ll get shouted at and beaten. It’s a standard trick to cause psychological damage and isolate the prisoner. If you can imagine yourself in that position, day in and day out, with two human beings, who then punctuate the silence with aggressive and terrifying interrogations. Where you’re threatened with the death sentence, and yet you don’t know what you’re accused of. You’re just a pain in the ass of the regime.
Over the course of the few days, even the interrogators got bored by the whole charade, and he managed to befriend some of them, and had very interesting and strange conversations with them. So that’s a part of the play.
HP: Is it common for interrogators to cave and talk to the captive?
BM: The guards themselves were just young kids, desperate country boys who became very lowly policemen given this tedious job they didn’t give a damn about. Obviously after a while even they wanted to talk to someone, and broke the rules. In the second leg of his incarceration, the powers that be decided that the interrogation wasn’t working, so they moved him to an army base where everything was much stricter, much harsher. He wasn’t allowed to speak to again, and CCTV cameras were filming everything. But even then, the guards developed a way of speaking, like ventriloquists. Even in those ghastly circumstances there’s still some humanity. People want to talk to each other.
HP: Could you ever try to corroborate Weiwei’s account with one of them, or would that only lead to trouble?
BM: Definitely not. The repercussions for them are so bad.
HP: What was your relationship with Weiwei when you did the interviews?
BM: I met him several years before. I had an interest in Chinese contemporary art, and I wanted to write a book, and he was one of the people I wanted to talk to. He’s such an important figure. After the death of mao, art basically started in China with a group of artists called the Stars. They were 12 people, and Ai Weiwei was one of them.
I met him first in London, and then in Beijing on a number of occasions, in his house. We mostly just talk about art.
When I came back to meet him after his release, he was basically agoraphobic. We decided, what better way to take revenge on the people who did this to him than exposing what goes on in these rooms.
HP: What was he like at the time?
BM: He’s obviously highly intelligent and witty, however just after his release he had been so robbed of his powers, and he was nervous. He had lost his self-possession and his self-confidence, not surprisingly. He was a shadow of his former self.
HP: Have you seen him since?
BM: Yes, a number of times. I don’t think you ever recover completely, and I don’t know how that sort of experience plays out in your life years later. But he’s much better than he was.