It is understandably tempting to compare Howard Brenton’s docu-drama about the recent incarceration by the Chinese authorities of Ai Wei Wei, internationally renowned artist, and designer of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, flagship building of the Beijing Olympics, with Kafka’s The Trial: indeed the director of this production does so in the programme notes. For me it’s more like Wolf Hall. Authoritarian regimes in all ages are capable of acting capriciously against anyone, however high up in the hierarchy, that they take exception to. Ai Wei Wei, unlike Josef K, was perfectly aware that it was the Chinese government that was behind his incarceration; as in Tudor times, minions were there to force confessions of heresy to justify the actions of the state against him. And as there, the outcome has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, compassion or malice: only perceived political expedience.
This production by Bath Drama brings all this out vividly on a stark set which mirrors perfectly the bleakness of the story and its overarching air of uncertainty and menace. The plight of the confused and frightened, but nevertheless defiant and reasoned Ai Wei Wei is superbly put across here in Mike Harley’s magisterial portrayal of the embattled artist. The cynical manoeuvring of government officials, the underlying humanity of the hapless stooges tasked with carrying out their victimisation of the artist, the claims of art over politics: all are brought out with great clarity of vision and an excellent cast of a standard that would grace any professional stage. Bath is incredibly fortunate in the quality of its non-professional theatre companies: this production, beautifully cast, directed, set and performed does nothing to dent that high reputation.
John Christopher Wood