Banksy: The Room in the Elephant

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“Ain’t no one want the truth, they want the story.”

In February 2011, ever-elusive street artist Bansky spray-painted the words “this looks a bit like an elephant” on the side of a water tank in Los Angeles. This tank, abandoned up in the hills, had been a man’s home for the last seven years. Of course, as soon as word spread that there was a new Banksy work on the loose, art dealers quickly swooped in to remove it from its site, with hopes of making a tidy profit. The tank’s inhabitant was left homeless.

It’s a good story. So it is hardly surprising that journalists quickly latched onto it, desperate to find out more about Tachowa Covington, the man who had made the water tank his home. Speculation spiralled around Covington’s life, his residence in the water tank, the circumstances of his eviction and the mysterious intentions of Banksy. One such article in the Independent inspired director Emma Callander, who asked Tom Wainwright to write a play about this series of events. So here was another story, and now that the piece arrives at the Arcola on its latest tour, it is joined by an additional piece in the jigsaw puzzle: Hal Samples’ documentary film Something From Nothing.

I first saw Banksy: The Room in the Elephant at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, armed with relatively little information about its intriguing subject. Wainwright, who has changed Covington’s name to Titus Coventry for the purposes of the play, has framed the tale within the fictional context of the water tank’s inhabitant telling his own story. Gary Beadle’s Coventry has broken back into the tank, now held in a secure warehouse in LA, and is recording a video of his version of events, with the intention of uploading it to YouTube. The show is careful throughout to remain playful in its handling of truth and fiction, inserting the storytellers into the tale and troubling the narrative it relates (if not always with a subtle hand). We are never entirely sure what to believe.

There is an irony, as Wainwright admits, in becoming part of the “land grab” for Covington’s story at the same time as he implicitly critiques it. Essentially, this play is embarking on the same act of artistic and narrative appropriation committed by both Banksy and the journalists who followed in his wake. Its possible redemption, however, is in its insistent questioning of the stories we tell, how they are told, and who gets to tell them. It’s no accident that Wainwright’s script is drenched in borrowed Hollywood references; I’m reminded of Hannah Nicklin’s comment that capitalism has stolen our stories and is selling them back to us. Everybody here has a story, we are told of LA, but not everyone has the power or the platform to tell theirs. Covington, for one, seems to have been refused the right to his own story.

With all of this in mind, it’s fascinating to watch the show a second time alongside Something From Nothing. The documentary actually pre-dates Banksy’s intervention; filmmaker Hal Samples had a chance encounter with Covington while in LA in August 2008 and began filming him and his eccentric home. After public interest in Covington exploded, Samples continued making the film, which goes on to chart its subject’s life post-Banksy and document his journey to Edinburgh to watch the play (to which he gave his blessing, before starting on some performing of his own).

It’s an engrossing film, but watched through the lens of the preceding play it is seen with wary eyes. For all the assumed authority of the documentary form, this is still, unavoidably, just one part of the story. While Covington might get the chance to speak up and to share the work of art he made out of the water tank long before Banksy came along, his life is nevertheless seen once again from another’s perspective. Leaving the Arcola, interest freshly piqued by this extraordinary character and his attempt to live outside the structures of society, I still feel that I have seen the story, not the truth.

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Mirror on the world

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

At London’s Southwark Playhouse, a man stands alone on the stage. In a nod to austerity, there is no other actor to take on the second role in this two-hander; instead, the play recruits its audience to read words projected onto a screen. It is a simple move, but one that speaks of collaborative protest in the face of injustice.

This was just one scene of many from last year’s Theatre Uncut. Harnessing the widespread anger sparked by the government’s Spending Review, this nationwide project hit back at slashes to public spending with a series of short plays that were made freely available for anyone to perform, from professional theatre companies to local am-dram societies, inciting over 800 participants to take action. The spirit was one of united protest, something that has been repeatedly felt in global politics over the last 12 months. It is this spirit that now brings Theatre Uncut back to the front line.

“This year we spoke a lot about whether or not it needed to happen,” says co-artistic director Emma Callander, who has taken the reins from founder Hannah Price for the 2012 season. During these discussions, the creative team found that the appetite for this political brand of collaborative theatre, so evident last year, is far from sated. “We felt that it did need to happen, because there were lots of issues which people still needed to debate and potentially take action on.”

The subjects tackled in this year’s plays read like a catalogue of discontent: the Eurozone crisis, mass civil unrest, the Occupy movement, the sorry state of global capitalism. From its initial platform as a theatrical movement speaking out against the coalition government’s spending cuts, Theatre Uncut has widened into a forum for political debate on myriad issues from around the world.

“It was important for us to put the UK’s situation into an international frame,” Callander explains. Drawing on a politically and economically tumultuous year for much of the globe, the plays from writers including Neil LaBute, Mohammad Al Attar and Lena Kitsopoulou place the UK’s unique problems within the context of a world screaming for change. Callander hopes the global perspectives will create “an exchange of ideas and issues that we need to face from country to country through a theatrical form.”

Going global has, however, had its difficulties. While audiences of the 2011 plays were “quite savvy” about the political and social issues being dissected, conveying national problems to an international audience presents a much greater challenge, but one that Callander describes as “wonderful.”

Such challenges are partly the reason for presenting a selection of the 2012 plays at the Traverse this summer, which will provide a brief glimpse of the work ahead of the full run in the autumn. Reversing last year’s performance schedule, the Fringe is something of a test run for the new pieces, as well as a springboard to reach out to potential collaborators. As Callander points out, there are few better places than Edinburgh to reach an international audience.

In addition to the previews, each Monday morning programme will include quick-fire pieces from emerging writers Stef Smith and Kieran Hurley, hurriedly written in response to whatever is hitting the headlines that week. Sweeping aside the suggestion that the form might have inherent limitations, Callander is infectiously enthusiastic about the possibilities of rapid response theatre. “It’s an immediate, live debate about something that’s happening right there and then.”

Callander sees this form of theatre as a catalyst for discussion, a “totally different beast” to work developed over a longer period. “I don’t even see time as a limitation,” she insists. “The whole point of this kind of theatre is that it’s rough, it’s vital.” To nurture such discussions, Theatre Uncut will be holding post-show talks after each performance, asking that audiences share their thoughts about the plays and engage in debate with the theatremakers.

Despite its origins and the very political nature of the material it explores, Callander is uncomfortable with Theatre Uncut being pigeonholed as political theatre. “All theatre,” she argues, “is in some way political, because everything is political.” But what she does recognise is drama’s ability to effect change, on individuals as much as policy-makers. “It’s where I go to learn how to live better,” she says of the theatre. “It’s the way that I best understand the world, so I hope that I can facilitate that for other people.”

Above all, she stresses, Theatre Uncut hopes to “encourage debate and galvanise action”. And can we expect this debate to continue? Callander’s answer is firm and concise. “As long as we feel the need is there, we’ll present it.”