Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, now showing at the Arcola, is a double-bill that compares the man with the myth and asks questions about what art is and how we value it. But the central character is not Banksy.
For seven years Tachowa Covington made his home in an abandoned water-tank outside Los Angeles. He lived, literally and figuratively, on the fringe, furnishing the tank with found objects and transforming it into a ‘palace in the sky.’ In 2011 Banksy, in town for the Oscars, spotted the tank and stencilled ‘this looks a bit like an elephant’ on its outside. Suddenly the tank had huge financial value and Tachowa was evicted from his home.
The Room in the Elephant is a one-man, 55 minute play starring Gary Beadle of Eastenders fame, based on Tachowa’s story but making no claim to be factual. ‘Don’t no-one want the truth – they want the story,’ explains the imagined Tachowa. Bristol-based playwright, Tom Wainwright, says he “followed his nose into a giant can of worms where truth and fiction lead each other on a merry little dance,” and the play is a self-conscious attempt to ask, ‘who is entitled to tell whose story?’
The play is followed by the short film Something from Nothing made by the Dallas filmmaker and friend of Tachowa, Hal Samples, comprising material gathered over seven years. It presents Tachowa at home in the tank, through being evicted, then documents his response as he becomes internationally famous through Wainwright’s play.
There is an irony in the idea of artwork by Banksy, who has made his name as an anti-establishment graffiti artist, being used to displace this true maverick from his home. Something From Nothing reveals that this is not in fact what happened – in reality Tachowa had already been given notice to leave the tank before Banksy’s visit. But this information doesn’t detract from the play’s essential point: that art can be a form of social colonialism.
It is also a satire on the contemporary circus around Banksy’s pieces. Over seven years Tachowa had invested in a truly original creation, lovingly upcycling a disused water tank into a quirky but comfortable living space. Before the graffiti appeared, it was viewed as a ‘piece of junk’ by the authorities, but it is now being preserved in storage and is the subject of a law suit, simply because the (somewhat inane) observation ‘this looks a bit like an elephant’ has been spray-painted on it. This looks a bit like the emperor is wearing no clothes.
The Room in the Elephant was a sell-out in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2013. Certainly the script is clever and Beadle gives a strong performance as the charismatic fictional Tachowa. It is Beadle’s talent which carries the show, as there’s little in the way of action.
The film Something From Nothing is illuminating but at times incoherent and disjointed.
The Room in the Elephant raises important questions for anyone interested in art and its politics. Otherwise it feels, like Banksy’s art – a little over-hyped.
The Room in the Elephant is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 26 April.