The illegal Silk Road linking BBC TV’s EastEnders to the Edinburgh Fringe

It was Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Gareth Ellis – one of those people who seems to know everyone – who told me that writer Alex Oates was going to be on The Keiser Report last week.

I had tea with Alex at Soho Theatre yesterday.

“Being on Max Keiser’s show must have been an interesting experience, I said.

“I had thought,” replied Alex, “it was an online version of some Bloomberg type thing. I had no idea it was on Russia Today. I just agreed to it.”

“When did Max start shouting?” I asked.

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left)and Max Keiser

Alex Oates (centre) with Dominic Shaw (left) and Max Keiser

“Quite soon,” said Alex.

Alex appeared on The Keiser Report with director Dominic Shaw, to plug Alex’s upcoming Edinburgh Fringe play Silk Road.

“Max wanted us on cos of the Bitcoin thing,” Alex told me. “He’s a Bitcoin evangelist.”

“And your play,” I prompted, “is about…?”

“We were going to call it SILK ROAD – OR HOW TO BUY DRUGS ONLINE but everyone said that was too gimmicky, so we just called it SILK ROAD. It’s a dark comedy about Silk Road, the illegal marketplace that uses Bitcoins, so we thought we would try and get funding through Bitcoin. It would be the first play financed through Bitcoins.”

“The guy who allegedly started Silk Road has been arrested,” I said.

“But,” said Alex, “three weeks after he was arrested, it came back and Silk Road 2 is very much alive.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to do a play about an online site where you can buy heroin and AK-47s?”

“You can’t buy AK-47s any more,” said Alex, “they’ve got a conscience.”

“But heroin is OK?” I asked.

One drug-selling page on the Silk Road hidden website, 2012

One drug-selling page on the illegal Silk Road website, 2012

“Yeah,” said Alex. “Strange, their moral compass. A bit wonky. Why did I want to do it? Because it’s really fascinating: the idea you can buy drugs on the internet and have them posted to your door by Royal Mail. And there’s a feedback system so you know what you’re buying is good drugs. There have been lots of plays and films about drug dealers, but this is the next generation of drug dealers.”

Silk Road is a one-man play starring James Baxter.

“How do you make it interesting?” I asked. “Because no-one ever meets anyone. It’s all online.”

Silk Road - The Play

Silk Road – a play about drugs, nans and tea cosies

“The guy in the play lives with his nan,” Alex explained. “She has an eBay business selling tea-cosies. He is trying to bring drugs to your average user. It’s quite hard to use Silk Road, so what he does is buy the drugs in bulk from Silk Road and then start slipping them into his nan’s tea-cosies. He lets people know that, if you buy his nan’s tea-cosies, then you’ll get a gram of cocaine with each one. So his nan’s eBay business goes from selling them for £5 to £60 and she virtually becomes a millionaire overnight.”

“How did Silk Road react?” I asked.

“Well, I advertised the play in the forums on Silk Road. Originally, a bunch of dealers were quite angry about it, saying: We don’t need any more press! We’re trying to keep this quiet! Then some dealers said: Look, we’re gonna get press regardless. So we might as well have someone in our corner. 

“Then one dealer said: I’ll give you some Bitcoins. And two Bitcoins were deposited in our account which, at the time we sold them, were worth £600 (together) – now, two weeks later, they’re worth around £850. The producer had thought Bitcoins might crash but, really, they’re not gonna crash any time soon, so we should have kept them. It was a mistake.

“I tried really hard to sell tickets for the play on Silk Road itself, but they’re not accepting any new venders at the moment. There’s a very strict authentication process and they’re being cautious since the fall of the first Silk Road.”

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre yesterday afternoon

Alex Oates at the Soho Theatre in London yesterday afternoon

“How did you get involved in Silk Road?” I asked.

“I’m friends with a lot of tech guys and I know some people who use the website.”

“For what?”

“Buying drugs. They were telling me about Silk Road and how amazing it was.”

“You can see pictures of what you are going to buy,” I said.

“Yes. And the actual chemical breakdown of the drug and how pure it is. And that is guaranteed. And then there are people who write reviews and say: Yes, I’ve tested this. It is actually what it says it is.

“Is there a money-back guarantee if not satisfied?” I asked.

“There’s an escrow system,” explained Alex.

“I’m not sure if this is a good development of capitalism or a bad development of capitalism,” I said.

“It fascinating, though, isn’t it?” said Alex.

“So,” I asked, “Your Silk Road play. Does it have a message?”

Alex Oates laughs on The Keiser Report

Alex, a man with little political agenda, on The Keiser Report

“I think if I have a political agenda,” replied Alex, “it’s about drug reform and how the War on Drugs does not really work.

“It has demonised a generation of potheads and, really, if you regulated it and taxed it, then it would be a lot safer. In the play, we go into local gangsters who cut cocaine with urinal cakes.”

“Urinal cakes?” I asked.

“The little yellow cakes that are there to make the urinals fresh.”

“Oh,” I said, “I thought for a moment you meant cakes made out of urine. After all, we are sitting in Soho. There is probably a niche market for people who want to eat things like that.”

“There is a market for everything,” said Alex. “If I’m making a political point it is about drug reform, but Silk Road is a very light and whimsical play.”

“So you wrote it because…?”

“I’ve always been obsessed with theatre.”

“There’s no money in writing plays is there?” I asked.

“They say you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. So I’m going for the killing.”

“No theatrical background?” I asked.

“My dad’s a policeman; my mum’s a nurse.”

“Your dad was in the drug squad?”

“No. He’s a retired inspector.”

“What did you study at university?”

“Theatre Arts at the University of Middlesex.”

“And then…?”

“I started writing on an EastEnders spin-off for the BBC.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I should do research in advance.”

A BBC publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20

BBC TV publicity shot of Alex for EastEnders:E20 series

“I was very lucky,” said Alex. “I got into a BBC Young Writers’ Summer School thing. It turned out the idea was for ten of us to create this thing called EastEnders: E20. I became the lead writer for that and wrote for three series of it.

“Then I applied for the Old Vic New Voices scheme and got onto that. They used to do a thing where you’re given 24-hour to write a play and you put it on in the Old Vic as a way to showcase yourself to the industry.”

“Jesus Christ 2,” I said. “I really should do research in advance. But I do know you are trying to finance Silk Road by crowdfunding it on Kickstarter and Max Keiser’s StartJOIN.

“Yes,” said Alex, “it finishes next Tuesday on Kickstarter. We need to raise £2,500 by next Tuesday or we get nothing.”

The play has already received £1000 from the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

“Next?” I asked.

“My next play is about an autistic boy,” said Alex, “because that’s my day job. I work with people with special needs.”

Rain Man?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Alex. “The thing that annoys me about the autism stereotype is the Rain Man thing. I wanted to show the other side. The really hard work. It can potentially ruin your life if you have an autistic child. It’s the sort of thing nobody really says, so the play is about a couple struggling to deal with having an autistic kid.”

There is a teaser for Silk Road on YouTube.

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Filed under Crime, Crowdfunding, Drugs, Theatre

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