Alaska at the Royal Court Upstairs is the thought provoking and sometimes alarming first play by DC Moore (he has chosen the very literary sounding DC rather than using his first name), a recent graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. In a taught 70 minutes, directed by Maria Alberg, we get a slice of life in modern Britain, angst, violence, intolerance and all. It is interesting seeing this play in the same week as Philistines by Gorky at the National, both plays show brooding young men unhappy with the society they live in, and the position they occupy within it. Gorky shows this through desperation with his family and eventual escape. In Moore’s play, Frank, is a bible bashing white supremacist, who takes it out on those around him (more like the father in Philistines). Having dropped out of university, seemingly disdainful of the privileged and conceited rich kids he comes into contact with, he returns to his hometown and gets a job working at the local multiplex cinema. Frank could be a working class hero who was battered down by privilege, but instead he’s a fantasist who thinks he is above the people he comes into contact with, but conversely this arrogance makes him appealing to some people. Rafe Spall was, so naturally, Frank, for every minute he was onstage, giving an extremely un-showy performance, somehow sympathetic to this horrible character. Frank shows us his true colours, kept hidden or rather more casual for day to day life, when confronting a young Asian woman, Mamta (Fiona Wade, also excellent), appointed as his boss at the cinema. In a long tirade, he tell her what is wrong with ‘her lot’ and the world at large; white culture is the only successful culture, whites have to intervene around the world to clean up other peoples’ mess, black and Asian people have only succeeded when they send their kids to a white school and live in a white area, he asserts that nobody cares about ‘black on black’ gun and knife crime, we are only happy that it is kept to themselves, he ask why African countries are often unstable dictatorships. His speech is much more than the short summary I have given above, it is actually a potent piece of oration. Mamta doesn’t really give a substantive response to his charges, but that stops the play sliding into political treatise delivered by one character to another. Frank being on the edge, unhappy, rejected and fragile, has a reason for making his hate speech, Mamta, a confident bright young woman set for university, has a reason for walking away, she simply doesn’t have to deal with this kind of rubbish. But as an audience (all white by the way), hearing this racist rage was quite shocking, nice liberal white people don’t come across this kind of race hate every day. And if you didn’t have a mildly inquiring mind or were driven by other factors (political or economic alienation for example) you could quite easily accept Frank’s thesis on the world, that is the scary thing. There is nobody onstage stating that humankind is equal, that economic subservience (dare I say slavery) still exists today, or generally debunking Frank’s hate. Of course I think that my liberal western values are best, but it is the very hypocrisy of accepting the deficiencies of other societies, but expecting my own life to be (relatively) free and easy, that made me feel embarrassed. The hypocrisy of the western liberal comfort, versus the humanitarian crisis happening daily in much of the world, could lead you to believe in racial superiority or a messianic zeal to forcefully change the world. And are the occasional piecemeal stabs we rich countries make at improving the world, made simply to comfort us morally, and indeed, aimed at reinforcing our status as top dog? The play asks big questions, but you have to be willing to take the arguments on stage and develop them yourselves.
But Frank’s asks us directly, who would choose to live amongst violence and gun crime in predominantly black areas? Who would want to make a new life in Zimbabwe (or any non developed nation) as an ordinary citizen, without the western lifestyle, comfort and medical care? Well, not me.
All these question, plus the fact that Mamta’s character is not painted as a saintly just because of the colour of her skin (she has feelings too, bitterness and hate even), lead this play to be a challenging and uneasy piece. It leads us not into simple, self congratulatory conclusions, but to uncomfortable questions. The one major criticism I have is that we don’t really understand the motivations of Frank, we can only wonder at where his twisted rhetoric has come from. But overall the play is a pretty brilliant debut.