New theatre show puts Banksy in the spotlight
- Credit: Archant
Three years ago, while in LA for the Oscars, guerrilla street artist Banksy sprayed This Looks A Bit Like An Elephant on the side of a disused water tank in the Hollywood hills.
Except the tank wasn’t empty, but the makeshift home for the last seven years of local eccentric Tachowa Covington.
No sooner had Banksy uploaded the image to his website, than the tank became a commodity. Speculators bought, removed it and put it up for sale.
Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is a one-man show that takes as its starting point this one creative act that unwittingly made a man homeless, and spins off into a self-referential exploration of who defines what art is, whose life counts and who chooses the stories we hear?
Director Emma Callendar says playwright Tom Wainwright wrote it without meeting Covington and doesn’t pretend it’s a true representation of the man.
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Indeed, the show – and title – toy with notions of authenticity, presenting “Titus Coventry” as an unreliable narrator, talking to camera, spinning stories about his life and playing with the audience’s desire to know “the truth about Banksy”; making them complicit in the way that human stories are spun by the media and appropriated by art.
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“I read an article in The Indpendent and became intrigued by who this man was,” says Callendar, whose theatre company makes “socially conscious political theatre”.
“I didn’t want to create a piece of verbatim theatre, so Tom Wainwright stepped forward, playing around with the form and moral element of representing real people on stage, riffing off the article and the little we knew of this character.
“It asks ‘how true is a true story?’ and acknowledges that the only truth you ever know is your own.
“The spin is it’s about Banksy but what does that mean and why would people rather come to see a show about Banksy than a homeless man? That irony is sewn into the story.”
This kind of arch self-consciousness infuriated some critics when it played at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and Callendar admits audience response has been polarised.
“Some people love it furiously, others really don’t like it at all and find it troublesome, which is also brilliant – it’s wonderful that it provokes debate, which is the whole reason I make theatre.
“It’s an incredibly powerful, surprising piece of work that twists and spins back in on itself and plays with what you think is real so you aren’t really sure what’s true.”
They flew Covington to the Scottish capital to see the show – his first time on a plane and outside of the US.
The entire episode was filmed as part of an ongoing documentary about his colourful life.
As for Banksy’s role in the story, once he heard of Covington’s plight, the Bristol-born artist gave him enough cash to live for a year and withdrew his validation of the tank image, rendering it worthless.
It has since been broken up for scrap and Covington, cash spent, now lives in a tent on the site where the tank stood.
The show, which comes to Hackney’s Arcola Theatre from April 1-21, tacitly questions the value of art and social responsibility of the artist.
“ I think Banksy must have known there was a man living inside that tank and was saying that homelessness was the elephant in the room in LA,” adds Callendar, who doesn’t pin any blame on the elusive artist.
“There’s an awful irony in Banksy trying to bring attention to homelessness and in that act making that person homeless.
“A tank suddenly being turned into a piece of art becomes more important than the fact that it is a man’s home.
“I think Banksy needs to be free to be an artist. It was an incredibly kind and generous act to give Tachowa money. He wasn’t duty-bound to do that, it wasn’t him that took the tank away.
“It’s for other poeple to decide the morals around Banksy but in my view he is acting with integrity.”