[The following contains spoilers.]
Alex Oates’ “Silk Road,” which is currently playing somewhere underneath George Square, takes up the subject of the illegal online marketplace which was shut down last year by the FBI. Silk Road’s travails are formidable to stage not only because this requires the audience to have some familiarity with a complicated technology, but because the man charged with being the site’s founder, the Dread Pirate Roberts, is still awaiting trial in New York. Oates appears to retreat entirely from the subject before jumping out on it again from an unexpected angle: a grandmother’s suburban home in Whitley Bay.
This is a one man show (see Tychy passim for the reasons why every one man show automatically gets only one star), in which a bouncy James Baxter plays a rags-to-riches young drug dealer named Bruce and various other, mostly comic characters. Bruce is the first dealer in Whitley Bay to discover Silk Road and he sets up shop in his Nan’s home. It is a charming story but one which is too distant, both in its setting and humour, from the full drama of the Silk Road debacle. The FBI action is thousands of miles away, the internet is naturally also offstage, and what there is left to see of this tale would be ultimately the same if Bruce had bought his drugs from any other supplier.
Oates does not want to bring politics into this play and even the drugs are unwelcome. Bruce is briefly portrayed as a user and he thereafter seems to inexplicably tire of the habit. If the state generally treats users like they are children, Bruce often resembles a naughty schoolboy, an innocent scamp with a cheeky face. His Nan is roped in to provide unwitting cover and the drugs are hidden in her home-knitted tea cosies (I like to think that this is a pisstake of Google’s execrable Youtube adverts about a housewife who sets up a satchel company in her kitchen). With the old biddy crooning her homely advice, this play assumes the appearance of a narcotics-themed episode of Last of the Summer Wine. I didn’t, by the way, suggest that this is a bad thing. Amusingly the villain Mr Shaggy is just as much a grumbling old woman as Bruce’s Nan. But Oates is not completely committed to sitcom bliss or to pantomime pirates, and we do not earn the right to an unqualified happy ending.
There is no reason why Bruce could not get off Scot free, with his now-deceased respectable Nan getting all the blame for running Whitley Bay’s drug empire. The ground is even prepared for a reconciliation between Bruce and his old flame. Perhaps, however, a happy ending is impossible because of a problem which remains at the very back of this story, like a hard little pea beneath all of the mattresses. The state has just shut down a market which makes people happy. It has intercepted all the drugs and denied their users’ freedom and autonomy: hardly the perfect fairytale ending to a pirate adventure.
[Previously on Tychy: “A Libertarian Take on the Silk Road Shutdown.”]