Tom Wainwright’s ambitious The Room in the Elephant, performed Òran Mór as part of their A Play, A Pie, A Pint season, asks a few familiar questions. What is sacrificed when we turn real life into art? Can this be done whilst retaining the integrity of truth and fact? Tangled in the elusive and socio-politically charged personality of Banksy, Wainwright’s promising one-man monologue does not quite tackle these questions. Instead it courts, then eventually begins to slide into a discomfiting fatuity.
The story of Tyrus Covingtree is based on the real life of Tachowa Convington, an aging LA-born ‘bum’ who lived inside a water tank bordering the wealthy Palisades Community for seventeen years: long enough for the US postal service to grant the manufactured home an actual address – 15145 Pacific Coast Highway. It wasn’t until one British-born grafitti artist came along and wrote ‘this looks a bit like an elephant’ in giant stencilled lettering that its definition as ‘art’ transformed the building into a capitalist enterprise. Covingtree is pushed out as legal companies swoop in, vying for what had variously existed as a “heap of junk”, a person’s home, and a piece of “priceless art”.
The concept is brilliant, while the conceptual execution lacks. It could have been used to contrast the famous artist’s feigned obscurity with the real-life societal invisibility of a homeless individual. Moreover, the parallel between contemporary issues of squatting and land ownership and cultural valuations of art’s aesthetic and monetary worth is worth exploration. Unfortunately, The Elephant in the Room doesn’t plumb this deep, in the process not quite living up to the potential of its premise.
The most successful element of the play was the illustration of Covingtree’s desire to be part of the grand narrative of America. Through Emma Callander’s direction and the arrival of a video camera Covingtree’s allusions to films, actors, story arcs and Hollywood glamour act as constant reminders of his desire to be involved in a fundamentally American industry, something so much larger than himself, and the larger still artifice of art which the reclaiming of his tank home so clearly indicates his exclusion from.
This is likely what Wainwright endeavours to convey by having Covingtree’s language constantly shift between prose, poetry and stream-of-consciousness. Yet the peculiar combination of these three different styles of narration seemed contrived and were often repetitious. Ideas and imagery constant resurfaced throughout the performance without adding additional layers of meaning or drawing the plot forward which often meant that the play lost momentum.
Similarly, the inclusion of “Mistah Wainwright” himself as a fixture in Covingtree’s monologue was probably intended to draw parallels between Banksy’s art and the playwright’s project as it unfolds before us. Emphasising the stage as the seat of fiction whilst attempting to highlight the polarities of art and reality, the conceit is unexpected and sits uneasily within the play’s framework. With the introduction of the writer as a third-party, the desperate desire to reach out for those big philosophical questions becomes too self-conscious and this, combined with the verbose qualities of Wainwright’s script, undermines its ingenuity.
Beadle’s performance fell short too: his attempt at a Californian accent and over-the-top jittering failed to capture the imagination. With the unforgiving script, his unvarying tone of voice and his wild-eyed presentation, the unfortunate result was an unsympathetic character whose story resembled the self-drawn ‘straight line’ rather than the ‘W’ even on stage. The lack of cohesiveness between the script and actor was further exacerbated by the music that burst in and out of the scene without warning or relevancy, bewildering the audience in its turn.
The mixture of a script which further estranges a concept already quite obscure, and underdeveloped characterisation has much of the night drag like a billiard ball through jelly. The overriding feeling offered by this production is one of disappointment. Poor script editing and strange directorial decisions leave the nucleus of a great idea never fully realised.