When it was announced that a collaborative project involving Wildworks, integral to The Passion of Port Talbot; the Theatre Royal Stratford East, previously home to Joan Littlewood; the Battersea Arts Centre, long-term supporters of Kneehigh and Punchdrunk; and the Young Vic, would focus on the story of Babel as part of the World Stages Festival there was a feeling that it could become the theatre event of 2012.
Involving a cast of over 300 and creating an immersive experience in the middle of London, Caledonian Park to be exact, Babel had the potential to create a truly gripping experience that would draw an audience together in a piece that would explore questions that have remained fundamental to human nature since the birth of our earliest civilisations.
The story of Babel is a story of primeval humanity and the development of language. Primarily thought of as biblical, it has antecedents common to a number of ancient civilisations. This is not uncommon in origin stories, and Babel in particular touches on questions of a universal root language that is as central to modern linguistics today as it would have been to ancient thinkers. It is hard not to imagine an oral tradition passing the story of Babel down through the generations as an an answer to the question of how it came to pass that humanity, rooted in theistic societies, spoke with such a multiplicity of tongues?
It is a story that has many resonances with the modern day, particularly in a world where Twitter bridges culture and internet search engines can translate web pages instantaneously. Perhaps after thousands of years humans are beginning to hurtle back towards a supposed original state where humans can converse across a universal language. The fact that Babel so singularly fails to address any of these questions is only the starting point of a troublingly flawed production.
In business circles, it is often felt that any negativity in performance appraisals should take the form of the infamous ‘shit sandwich’ – for those unaware of such a delicacy, it generally involves a criticism layered carefully between two positive statements. Unfortunately in the case of Babel, there is far too little of the positive to create a sandwich, at best you might be able to fashion some form of Danish Smørrebrød but even that appears optimistic.