[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)
In 2011, the graffiti artist Banksy spray-painted “This looks a bit like an elephant” across the side of a water tank just outside Los Angeles. That water tank had been Titus Coventry’s home for seven years. This is his story. Sort of. Our narrator, purportedly Coventry himself, enters pushing a shopping trolley and sets up a small video camera to tell his side of the story. Acknowledging the audience, Coventry tells us several times that we don’t want the truth, we want a good story. We want a story with highs and low, plot twists and a happy ending. Well, real life isn’t like that, says Coventry, so we’re just going to have to listen and see.
Some things about the story are true: Banksy did spray paint the slogan, someone was living inside, and he was kicked out when the tank was sold as a now-precious work of art. However, the play is not verbatim, and is therefore a fictionalisation of sorts. Coventry is played by Gary Beadle under the direction of Emma Callander, all working from Tom Wainwright’s script. Banksy tells a fascinating story, and tells it well, with Beadle making a believable and engaging Coventry. Callander’s direction is spot-on, making us feel bad for Coventry but also questioning what right we have to unpick his story at all.
Where the play doesn’t work, for me, is in its questioning of art and authenticity. Because, of course, Coventry is not telling his own story, even with the to-camera monologues. This is a scripted, semi-imagined piece of theatre, and although the play tries to grapple with this idea it remains slippery. Wainwright’s script acknowledges that it is kind of exploitative, that in dramatising the story he is putting words in Coventry’s mouth – that Coventry himself is “a human cure for writer’s block”. It also touches on bigger questions about art and about value; Coventry wonders how “a worthless hunk of junk can become a priceless piece of art?” What it doesn’t do satisfactorily, though, is interrogate these ideas or take them any further. It raises questions but doesn’t attempt to answer them.
That aside, the script is a lovely thing, written with care and empathy. Coventry is presented as a raconteur, and Banksy is at its heart a great story well told. Callander’s direction makes Beadle’s Coventry an empathetic but not pitiful figure, and the script has plenty of nice touches to create a well-rounded and likeable character. I just wish that the script squared up to face its ideas about exploitation and value, which instead remain the elephants in the room.
Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is at Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.