“They know me, but they don’t notice me.”
Silk Road is a modern tale about piracy. Its title comes from a well-intentioned if illegal digital marketplace that was like eBay, but for drugs. It was set up in 2011 by 27-year-old libertarian Ross Ulbricht, who quickly became a multimillionaire. By 2013, Ulbricht was arrested and the website was shut down.
But like the dark web that Silk Road (the marketplace) resides in, its faceless users cloaked in code and Bitcoin transactions, Silk Road (the play) hides within its complex plot the bleak loneliness faced by the outcasts of society.
Playwright Alex Oates crafts a clever, if at times disjointed, web of narratives involving individuals who do not quite fit in and are hemmed into their lives in Whitley Bay. Protagonist Bruce is a mediocre club DJ-turned-narcotics entrepreneur who longs to be noticed by the world. Other characters turn to amateur theatre (bouncer Mason), Michael Jackson songs (club owner Mr Shaggy), and stories about Princess Anne which may or may not be true (Bruce’s chatty nan).
Josh Barrow is a serviceable actor, his lithe frame best employed in the portrayal of nervy Bruce and his scene-stealing nan. With the more larger-than-life characters and moments – such as Ulbricht’s arrest in a public library – director Dominic Shaw amps up the atmosphere with the clever marrying of dramatic lighting (Rachel Sampley) and plosive sound against the spare set.
I especially liked the use of towers of books, which appear to represent the thousands of users who power Silk Road. It is also a nod to the free sharing world that Ulbricht dreamed of building, which, according to the programme notes, Oates supports. In the play, when FBI agents finally swoop in on Ulbricht, the arrest seems to be a greater act of violence compared to the original crime.
But while Oates is definitely saying something important about who the real bad guys are in our modern global economy, what gives this play its he@rt is the gradual hollowing out of Bruce’s identity and humanity in his pursuit of success, legitimacy and love. Barrow delivers a powerful monologue in which Bruce lashes out at his nan, the only person left who truly cares for him. It is heartbreaking to watch his self-destruction.
In the end, our protagonist becomes, in Silk Road parlance, SWIM – Someone Who Isn’t Me. He is that online cipher that easily disappears in the layers of anonymity, because we never really knew him, if at all.
Silk Road is on at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1st September 2018. Click here for more details.