There’s a strong chance that the only appropriate way to look at both of the pieces on display in this double bill about the life of Tachowa Covington is through the lens of moneyed white artists appropriating the life of a homeless black man to create contemporary art, first in the form of sparse modern theatre, and then as lo-fi documentary.
Writer Tom Wainwright and his collaborator Emma Callander seem to have the clearer understanding of this out of the two creative teams involved in the production of this double bill, evidenced by a heavy degree of meta-theatrical awareness in the tone of their play, and the fact that during the first meeting between Wainwright and Covington, he turns to the camera wielding Hal Samples and says firmly: “turn it off”.
Banksy: The Room In The Elephant fictionalises an account of Tachowa Covington, inhabitant of a water tank upon which Banksy spray paints the words “This Looks A Bit Like An Elephant”. Soon enough Tachowa, or Titus Coventry, as he is called here, is out on his tail as “some big legal business” comes in and repos his home.
Wainwright has understood and reacted intelligently to the sense that he, much like the media once the story became public, have hijacked the life of a man to tell a narrative about a famous artist. Callander has explained that after first reading the story in the papers, the two challenged each other to produce a piece of theatre based not upon exhaustive research, but upon the narrative which was already out and in the cultural marketplace.
The result is a sharply tailored piece of theatre, rich in self-awareness, and not poor in dramatic quality, either. Coventry, briskly and excitedly portrayed by Gary Beadle is a character whose personhood exists independently of Covington. He is derived from the mythicism of Hollywood, from SoCal beach-bum culture, from a smart and clear awareness of the kind of psychological issues which face the homeless and from Wainwright’s own theatrical voice. “You don’t want to hear the truth”, Beadle proclaims early; “You want to hear the story.”
He is right; the poetic, prophetic Coventry has plenty to say about how the arts and the media are built upon the backs of others, and how creativity is as much about the narrative as about the work itself. Callander’s direction is tight, Vize’s set and costume are pure and evocative, and the music is drawn from that Bristolian chapter of trip-hop which feels like it was written to soundtrack tales of California darkness a la David Lynch. It’s not the truth of Covington’s life, which has absolutely no bearing upon how good a piece of theatre it is.
Something From Nothing works in the same sphere of appropriation, but is alarmingly unaware of how the system operates. Earnest talking heads give us the once over on how they discovered Covington before Banksy catapulted him into international conversation, and tell us who Covington is and what he means to them, and even more earnest screen caps reveal there is a “darker side” to Covington, as though the illusions we hold about this man who lives in a water tank and wields a Samurai sword and wears a crown are so misaligned that he needs a Crimewatchtreatment.
The piece is redeemed by beautiful, open hearted shots of Tachowa Covington at peace and at play, meeting people, freewheeling down the beachfront on rollerblades, looking out into the forest, and others. At these points it transcends the voyuerism of the awful, awkward shots of Covington being hugged and depredated by thoughtless Fringe attendees. The latter of these are an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the work itself, a piece wearing the same lack of awareness on its back. At times it is interesting, and by being so intimate a depiction of a man it strikes sometimes at the severity of his circumstance and the core of his personhood, but not often enough to match the success that precedes it; the story exceeds the truth.