Live blogging live streaming #aiww

19th April 2013

I had a ticket to the National Theatre’s Othello tonight, but circumstances now mean that I’m at home. Which offers the perfect opportunity to watch the online live stream of The Arrest of Ai WeiWei from Hampstead Theatre. The stream is on this page – and I’m offering commentary here (read up from the bottom). Do please contribute to the discussion below.

21:55 Of course no-one contributes to blog discussions anymore, do they?

21:52 I really would love to know how much #aiwwlive stream cost – and how many people watched. We need this information to be shared so that other theatres can consider whether or not this is an approach they want to explore.

21:50 The stream is going to be repeated on a loop for the next 24 hours via the Hampstead Theatre website.

21:46 I’m very pleased to have seen this stream but it did feel creatively limited. The aesthetic reminded me of the way that television records scenes of plays for review programmes – functional, clean, direct but sterile. Somehow the basic poetry of a theatre performance had been somehow sucked away. But I certainly don’t think it’s impossible to achieve that with a live presentation from a theatre.

21:43 Another reflection from Dan Hutton, referencing the recent 24-hour stream from Forced Entertainment (which I really should have seen some of): ‘Though #aiwwlivestream and #quizoola24 were very different events, there’s no doubting the latter felt more tailored to live-streaming.

21:41 No tech credits at the end, but streaming services apparently provided by 3xScreen Media.

21:39 So when did you realise he was bound to break that vase? Applause, particularly for Benedict Wong as Ai WeiWei. No wrap-up, just a caption saying ‘Thank you for watching’. And we don’t have that tube journey home.

21:33 Ai WeiWei admits tax fraud and is released. Now he speaks to us alone, trying to make sense of the experience. A concluding monologue, apparently drawn from Ai WeiWei’s thoughts from his blog.

21:28 Dan Hutton (@dan_hutton) points out that, ‘Other streams by the way include Northern Stage @ Fringe last year, quite a bit on The Space last summer & Quizoola last week’

21:24 Back to the cell. The guards have learnt something about Marcel Duchamp. ‘Talking to you we have changed our view of art.’

21:22 ‘One day though we will have to open fire.’ ‘Then we will.’

21:17 Leader suggesting that Ai WeiWei’s greatest work might be his own imprisonment – and that this needs to be avoided. Brenton’s idea is that art can be recuperated more easily by systems of power by a kind of acceptance. There are parallels here with Howard Barker’s play Scenes from an Execution, recently revived at the National.

21:15 The fears of the Chinese leaders over social media – ‘the collapse of everything’.

21:11 Back to the Communist Party headquarters, another impressive scene transition.

21:02 Hampstead Theatre got the stream working on their web site, so more viewers are certainly watching it there – probably more than on YouTube (122 now) given that that address was the one initially given out. But this still feels like a very modest number of viewers.

20:59 Structure of second half mirroring that of the first, with Ai WeiWei gradually building a relationship with his guards.

20:53 @dan_hutton points out that this is hardly ‘revolutionary’, and that there have been a number of similar projects over the past year – I can certainly think of ones from Pilot Theatre and National Theatre Wales. Others?

20:49 Another discussion of the purpose of art. Nice touch that one of the interrogators is wearing a United football shirt with ‘Giggs’ on the back. 138 watching.

20:44 Clever use of on-stage video feed when Ai WeiWei requests permission to use the toilet.

20:42 What are the economics of this? I wonder if Hampstead Theatre might share what this stream has cost. Quite what do we think are the benefits to the theatre? How might they be understood? Will this have any effect on the box office? Will it harm attendances or increase interest in the production?

20:38 Start of part two, another cell revealed inside what was being treated as an artwork – the equivalence of politics and art, a familiar Brenton concern.

20:31 Suggestions on Twitter that we’re seeing something ‘revolutionary’ in theatre. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but this is part of a significant shift, no doubt about that.

20:28 How to think about this experience, and how to describe it? There’s no doubt that I’m getting a strong sense of the play and the production. I am enjoying the performances and appreciating the smart and finely flexible set. Am I as involved as if I were sitting in the theatre? Clearly not. This is a very different, rather distanced experience, which seems to facilitate me doing other things (like blogging) at the same time. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s certainly very different from the tradition of theatre that we’ve all lived with for decades.

20:20 End of the first part. A caption comes up saying ‘Interval 20 minutes’. The shot is again from the back of the auditorium with the audience going off for a drink and a scene change taking place on stage. The cameras continue to give us different shots of this. YouTube says that only 117 are watching now – can this really be the full audience, or are there (many) others watching other streams?

20:15 We have moved to the upper echelons of the Party in Beijing, with two ministers discussing aesthetics and Ai WeiWei, who sits at the centre of the scene. He is to be moved to an army base. We learn from Hampstead Theatre (@Hamps_Theatre)  that this scene is set in ‘Zongnanhai, the State Council of China’s central headquarters in Bejing’.

20:13 Hampstead Theatre (@Hamps_Theatre) says that the artist himself @aiww is watching the stream in China. His feed refers to the stream but is, sadly, mostly in Mandarin.

20:07 Discussion with interrogators about how to make the perfect Beijing Noodle. Funny, engaging scene. Guards are suspicious of Ai WeiWei’s ‘arty’ touches in his recipes. He begins to develop a relationship with his captors.

20:04 On Twitter Hampstead Theatre (@Hamps_Theatre) commentary includes links to images of the artworks featured in the discussion. Impressive extension of the drama.

19:57 The discussion is about the point and value of art. Ai WeiWei speaks about certain specific artworks of his and their political effectivity. I do think this is an effective way of translating theatre to a wider audience, although the number currently watching according to YouTube (120) is only about one-third the number of seats at Hampstead.

19:53 Interrogation continues, including a dispute about whether Ai WeiWei is an artist or an ‘art worker’, and about the market for contemporary art – is it a con? Ai WeiWei addresses the audience at times as his thoughts.

19:47 Tweet from David Collins (@daicollins): ‘Feeling like a renaissance man. Simultaneously watching the live stream of The Arrest of Ai Weiwei from Hampstead Theatre and Masterchef‘. Hampstead Theatre (@Hamps_Theatre) providing a Twitter commentary: ‘Ai Weiwei was first interrogated by the Beijing Police Murder Squad who had no idea who he was’

19:44 ‘Who did you kill?’ Ai WeiWei explains he is an artist. ‘A WHAT?’ The two sullen guards return.

19:41 The guards have been playing videogames, but now a superior officer has come to question Ai WeiWei. 104 watching.

19:38 Ai WeiWei is being searched and manacled to a chair. There are occasional brief freezes on the picture, but otherwise technically this is now very impressive.

19:37 The audio problem is fixed. Hurrah. 84 watching now.

19:34 Oh dear, I’m getting a dreadful double echo of the audio, as the artist is detained. I’m trying to refresh to get rid of the audio difficulties. The box has become a cell and the sides fall away to reveal a hooded Ai WeiWei with two guards.

19:32 The image quality is excellent. Ai WeiWei as a character has arrived on stage, and is being questioned by an immigration official.

19:30 Characters are on stage, seemingly at the opening of an exhibition, waiting for something. In the centre of the stage is an object, which might be a large box of some kind. There is a barrier around it and people are chatting, having their photo taken.

19:29 Hampstead Theatre artistic director Edward Hall has just offered a brief welcome – and I’ve managed to embed the YouTube feed. 387 are watching now.

19:26 And on this new site we’re up and running with a shot from towards the back of the auditorium. The YouTube page says that 31 are watching now.

19:24 Not perhaps the best of starts – at this very late stage Hampstead Theatre have Tweeted that ‘due to technical difficulties’ the live stream has had to be moved to this YouTube site:

19:15 And all of this digital activity is taking place with next-to-no relationship to broadcast television – on which, see my recent Guardian article, ‘What’s TV’s problem with theatre?’

19:11 These are interesting times for the digital distribution of British theatre: NT Live and Shakespeare’s Globe in cinemas, Digital Theatre, individual projects like Pilot Theatre’s interactive streaming of last year’s York Mystery Plays and work from National Theatre Wales, and doubtless many more initiatives to come. And now this, which seems to have been put together very quickly – the announcement was less than 10 days ago.

19:04 The streaming site here currently has a discreet countdown clock over a slideshow. The hashtag for discussion on Twitter is #aiwwlivestream.

18:56 This is a great initiative of Hampstead Theatre, and it’s one that has been made possible by Friends of Ai WeiWei and the Lisson Gallery. Howard Brenton’s new play had its press night this week and the reviews have been very positive (go here for snippets). So I’m very interested to see the play and the production by James Macdonald. But I am also fascinated to see how a live stream of a contemporary theatre play might work online.


  1. All technical facilities and crew were supplied by One Box Television Ltd tonight. Three manned HD Broadcast cameras, vision mixed from the lift lobby under the stage. One rehearsal for crew last night, then live tonight to the world.

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