Howard Brenton

Playwright Howard Brenton has written a new play about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The stage production debuted this month in London. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

There have been a number of stage plays devoted to the lives of visual artists -- Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko have all received the grand theatrical treatment. But Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is unlike the others in that he is a bonafide online phenomenon in addition to being a creative force.

Howard Brenton's #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei" -- the hashtag refers to the artist's prolific Twitter habit -- opened last week in London at the Hampstead Theatre. The English-language play is based on the book by journalist Barnaby Martin and features British actor Benedict Wong as the artist. 

The plot focuses on Ai's 81 days in secret detention in 2011, and the relationship that formed between the artist and his guards. The artist was arrested by Beijing officials for what his supporters view as retaliation for his online activism in the realms of free speech and human rights.

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Reviews of the production have been generally favorable. Sarah Hemmings of the Financial Times described it as "a modest yet tremendously powerful piece of political theatre."

The Telegraph's Charles Spencer wrote that the production is "clearly An Important Play. But it is also a very good play -- moving, scary, gripping, inventive and at times laugh-out-loud funny."

One dissenting voice came from the Evening Standard's Fiona Mountford, who described the production as an "authentically stultifying experience. ... It's repetitive, monotonous and punctuated by lengthy silences."

The play was live-streamed on Friday. The theater said Ai watched the entire webcast and participated in the concurrent Twitter conversation. The production is scheduled to run at the Hampstead through May 18.

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