JESSICA SAMMONDS reviews Banksy: The Room in the Elephant at the Arcola Theatre.
In February 2011, the words ‘This looks a bit like an elephant’ appeared along the side of a disused water tank overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway, Los Angeles. A photograph of the water tank was posted on the website www.banksy.co.uk, thus authenticating it as a Banksy. Immediately hoards of people flocked to its location to see the newest work by the elusive British street artist. Perhaps inevitably, the water tank was removed from its foundations on 3rd March 2011 by the organisation Mint Currency and put into a holding warehouse, whilst the partners of Mint Currency hoped to secure a buyer for the ‘work’. Yet while the water tank was not used for its original purpose it was certainly not disused. For the past seven years, a man named Tachowa Covington had made it his home. Suddenly Covington, who prior to these events hadn’t even heard of Banksy, found himself dispossessed.
It is with this information, and from this point in time, that Tom Wainwright started the narrative of his play. It opens with Tachowa Covington (Gary Beadle) breaking into his former water tank home with a video camera to broadcast his ‘story’ to the people of Youtube. LA, he says, is the ‘storytelling capital of the world’, as he recounts the story of how Banksy turned his own world upside-down. Gary Beadle fashions a wild-eyed, frenetic and engaging Covington, darting between dejection and bewilderment at the occurrences that took him from squatter to vagrant. Beadle, emphasises the jaunty rhythms and occasional rhymes of the script drawing laughs from the audience, but at potential moments of poignancy, seems almost constrained by clichéd lines (‘I’m a real human being!’).
But are the clichés the point of the play? Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is about how one artist appropriated another man’s reality when he unwittingly transformed Covington’s home into artwork. Tom Wainwright is perhaps acknowledging that he is doing the same by appropriating the events of this man’s life into his play, through the sometimes implausible lines showing how his artwork cannot truly relay the disruption to Covington’s life. Wainwright’s Covington is dressed as an LA stereotype: a faded Lakers t-shirt and high-top trainers. Both the playwright and the director seem to acknowledge the failings of their art to create a ‘real human being’ and instead create a fictionalised typecast.
Director Emma Callander has Beadle seated for much of the production, which, along with the snug space of the Arcola Theatre, feels appropriately intimate for a performance that is directed at a video camera, making a film for imagined Youtubers watching in their bedrooms. At the Arcola, the play is followed by Hal Samples’ documentary on Tachowa Covington, Something From Nothing. As playwright Tom Wainwright notes ‘it seems wonderfully appropriate that our imagined telling of Tachowa’s journey is now presented in tandem with the truth. A fitting conclusion, perhaps, to this story’.
The dual perspective given by the fictionalised Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, and the factual Something From Nothing, makes for an interesting evening. For those interested in the impact of artistic appropriation on reality, who simply want to enjoy an energetic performance, this production is well worth a visit.
Showing at the Arcola Theatre until April 26th 2014. £17 a ticket (£12 for Students!)