views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Banksy: The Room in the Elephant
The Arcola Theatre
4th April 2014


Gary Beadle as Tachowa Covington

Photography © Richard Davenport

For such a mystery man, Banksy is never far away from the headlines. Whether it's because his work gets nicked from walls in Turnpike Lane, his collaborations with the equally artistically inclined stand-up Simon Munnery (which led to Munnery pretending to be his lawyer) or, in this case, the single-handed destruction of one man's life and "property". But this mystery man constantly eludes capture, defies description and blurs the line between vandalism and art. To repurpose a Venn diagram analysis of one of Munnery's own reviews, his work could be described as "The closest vandalism comes to modern art. The closest vandalism gets to modern art means Banksy's vandalism is right on the edge of vandalism - almost not vandalism at all, but definitely not art." Of course, like Munnery's work, your milage may vary when it comes to Banksy...

This double header, writer Tom Wainwright's 50-minute play Banksy: The Room in the Elephant and its unwitting companion piece documentary Something for Nothing, give us myriad perspectives of Tachowa Covington, the man who lost his water tank home at the same time Banksy decided to write "This looks a bit like an elephant" on the side, turning it from trash to "art". But it goes much, much further. Taken together, the metatextual, sometimes contradictory, nature of each piece mirrors the mystery of the artist and paints an equally mercurial picture of the subject of this tragedy. You come out knowing the broad strokes of the tale, but there's still a question mark over whether the artist is to blame, and whether Covington - despite losing a home - has lost his spirit.

So let's tackle this separately at first, shall we? In the first half, Emma Callander directs Gary Beadle (best known from cult 90s comedies The Glam Metal Detectives and Operation Good Guys, plus some insignificant work called EastEnders - nope, me neither) as our man, breaking back into his water tank one last time. It's been removed from its original place as it's now an important piece and, along with his ratty friend (a nod to some of Banksy's creations) he recounts his tale of woe for YouTube. As well as an upsetting story of social injustice, Covington, a Los Angeles native and aspiring actor, plays about with story narrative and perhaps reveals a few uncomfortable universal truths.

As we later see, Beadle does a great job of capturing the essence of someone - albeit without a few of Covington's eccentricities. We warm to the enigmatic, difficult, warm and articulate homeless guy, Beadle naturally getting the audience onto his side and also displaying a little brilliant intentionally bad acting. Drawing on both his comic and dramatic background, it's an obvious but well-considered casting - and he hits all of the right notes even if Covington is painted in broad strokes until the piece's climax.

Gary Beadle as Tachowa Covington

Photography © Richard Davenport

In his notes, writer Wainwright felt "grubby" writing about someone else's life and this is addressed directly on stage by Beadle, with a touch of Tom in Covington's text. Yet this kind of self-aware commentary works alongside the knottiness of the story and the difficulty anyone seems to have to pin down either our protagonist or antagonist. There's also a particularly metatexual section that must have been inserted after-the-fact that may initially be jarring but again works to one of the overall themes, discord. Director Callander also works alongside Wainwright to subvert an initially subtle act that increasingly becomes frustrating in its exposition, resulting in something satisfying. Still, every action, every discussion, may finally be a lie as Covington is nothing if not an unreliable narrator.

Those seeking clarity in the second (and equally vital) half, may be disappointed. But individuals intrigued enough for another facet to the tale - and to the human - will be delighted. Hal Samples' almost ramshackle documentary Something from Nothing is the real-life story of Covington, beginning a few years before his eviction and ending in February this year. Think less Dispatches and more a Super-8 home movie, perfectly befitting its mixed bag subject. With everything you see here - the highs and the lows - there's no doubting in another life, Banksy and Covington could have been friends.

Indeed, it really raises more questions than answers, and may not sit perfectly well with the version of events as described in the first half. However, that's the point - he's a tricksy man who, despite having a good heart, is almost impossible to pin down, no matter how open his home. Wainwright has Covington lie, and his real-life counterpart also deceives - perhaps to himself most of all. He's no less admirable and interesting for it and even when the documentary is at pains to point out his failings (such as his stabbing of an intruder), he's sympathetic. It's hard to tell with such an odd figure whether Samples and co have attempted to paint him in a good light, if they've been suckered in by the charismatic leader of the cult of himself, or whether he is just at heart an innocent. Perhaps that's not the point. Perhaps both they and Wainwright simply put the painting on the wall, Jackson Pollock-style, and we have to decide whether it does, in fact, look like an elephant.

So what to make of it all? As Covington tearfully says after witnessing Beadle's performance in the documentary: "It's good." And he's not wrong. But taken hand-in-hand with Samples' study of the real man, it becomes a sensational symbiotic staging that makes us question the intrinsic merit attached to a work, consider wider social and moral implications of apparently insignificant actions and value the unique characters of this world. I might not know art, but I know what I like.

Banksy: The Room in the Elephant ran from 1st to 26th April 2014 at the Arcola Theatre.

Nearest station: Dalston Junction (Overground)

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