Friday, 4 April 2014

Theatre review: Banksy: The Room in the Elephant

A true story provides the inspiration at the Arcola's smaller studio, but it's a starting point which can lead in a couple of different directions. Tachowa Covington is a homeless man who spent seven years living in an abandoned water tank in the Hollywood hills, kitting it out into a real home that even had its own CCTV system. The tank became a focus of attention when the graffiti artist Banksy wrote THIS LOOKS A BIT LIKE AN ELEPHANT on the side. Suddenly the tank is a piece of art with a measurable financial value, and Tachowa was kicked out. Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is Tom Wainwright's fictionalised version of his story; the monologue is followed by Hal Samples' short documentary film Something From Nothing, which features the real Tachowa's life in the tank, and the circumstances that saw him kicked out of it.

Gary Beadle plays Titus Coventry, a fictional version of Tachowa, in Banksy: The Room in the Elephant. Titus is a failed actor who spots the tank in his darkest hour and finds a sanctuary in it. When he loses this home, all everyone wants to ask him about is the mysterious man who wrote on the side of it.

Beadle's Titus is very likeable and determinedly ordinary, a person down on his luck who made the best - in spectacular fashion - of a bad lot. Wainwright has used only the basic headlines of Tachowa's story to create his play, so Titus is very much a different character, one who's broken back into his former home to film a YouTube video giving his side of the story.

Wainwright's discomfort with using a real person's misfortune for art influences the whole way his play develops. Titus grumbles about the playwright telling his story without ever having met him, in the way that Banksy hijacked what his tank meant. But if Banksy: The Room in the Elephant isn't Tachowa's story, it becomes part of it, as we see after the interval. The play talks about narratives exaggerating real life for dramatic effect, but it turns out its central conceit does the same thing: Samples began filming before Banksy took an interest in the tank, so we find out that Tachowa had already been kicked out when he wrote on the side of it. So while the artist may have redefined what the place meant in the public eye, he didn't actually inadvertently make Tachowa homeless again.

The real person also turns out to be a lot more of an eccentric than his fictional counterpart, although we see him too question how Wainwright can write the story without ever having met him. He gets his answer when he's taken to the Edinburgh Fringe to see Beadle perform in the play, which has him in tears (and the trip provides him with a new eccentric outfit for rollerblading around Venice Beach.) Having seen another take on the character in the previous hour it's easy to remember that Hal Samples' film is also able to construct its own version of Tachowa (and I know I wouldn't trust a filmmaker who I'm pretty sure I heard say Scotland is in Ireland*) so the evening overall becomes about how a real person's life can become a story - but there's still a real living person left at the end of it.

Banksy: The Room in the Elephant by Tom Wainwright (including Something From Nothing by Hal Samples) is booking until the 26th of April at Arcola Studio 2; then continuing on tour to Bristol, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

*ETA: I'm reliably told that I did hear correctly, but it's a local radio DJ who gets an F in Geography, not Samples.

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