Babel – Performed at Caledonian Park until 20 May.
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.
There is very little to commend in Babel. It is clearly meant to be a piece of theatre that engages the community as creators, performers and audience. This may inevitably lead to a certain level of amateurism in the final product but to blame the actors is to blame a bank clerk for being single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the banking industry.
It is possible that the use of so many companies led to creative tensions and difficulty in agreeing an overarching narrative but the whole evening was bafflingly shambolic, with a number of separate experiences failing to tie together to create any sense of a whole. The audience is initially led through a series of tableaux showing domesticated life hidden in the woodland and overseen by figures that could be taken to be angels whispering portentous phrases like ‘today’s the day’.
It all looked very charming but there was no contextual sense as to why these people were there. In the worst kind of promenade theatre, it felt that the space had been found and interesting images developed entirely separately and without consideration of whether they could be fused together.
The audience eventually spilled out into an open field dotted with various tents and stages. If you squinted it was somewhat reminiscent of a school fete and it was hard not to look around to find the tombola. Left to mill around the site, the stalls turned out to be a mixture of cupcake (why always cupcakes?) and booze stands, whilst you could also take part in knitting and model making. Nothing fundamentally wrong with any of this but if it was community engagement, it was community engagement that emanated from the mind of a Hackney hipster.
At some point in the evening the performance started. However where everything leading to this point had a certain charm in spite of a rather cloying tweeness, the moment where it turned into a play was the point where the cataclysmic scale of the night’s ineptitude was finally revealed.
The plot managed to be heavy-handed and hilariously simplistic at the same time. It was the equivalent of reading a Ladybird Guide to the Occupy Movement, as sub-Orwellian guards’ bellowed lines through megaphones and picture-postcard family had their tents scattered. The strangest thing was that there was no explanation as to why the families were being forced to move and given the flimsy nature of the buildings, I could not help but have certain sympathy with the guards who were probably just being told to enforce local planning regulations to get rid of the poorly-built eyesores.
The acting was appallingly bad but then again a cast of Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier would have struggled to enliven dialogue this inert. If it was an element it would have nestled comfortably next to Helium and Argon on the Periodic Tablet. Babel achieved the rare feat of creating dialogue so simple that it managed to be devoid of both inner- and outer-meaning.
It is possible that the performance was aimed at younger audiences but it seems inconceivable that children would not feel either bored or patronised by Babel. It last for about 90 minutes and in that time nothing happens. At all. The plot, as it is, can be summed up as people build tents, get asked to move, don’t want to move, something happens in the tower, the people in the tents kind-of win.
The Tower is subject to some good visualisations and an effective use of projected imagery to show the inside but these effects were repeated until they lost any power. It is also surprisingly under-utilised given the centrality to the story. Everything happens with it as a backdrop and there is a sense that only thing that is going to come crashing down over the course of the evening is the audience’s patience.
I would have lot less of a problem with Babel if it wasn’t for the fact that I suspect considerable sums of public money was spent on it. It is supposed to be a centrepiece of the Olympic build-up and frankly it is a catastrophic, mishandled failure. I feel sorry for the community members who were involved in the production because they would have given up their time to be involved and they are probably going to face a stream of vitriolic reviews that they do not personally deserve.
Any blame should be directed at the companies that thought this was even close to being at an acceptable standard for public consumption. If God destroyed the Tower of Babel and scattered the people of the world after seeing a demonstrations of humanity’s unified purpose then one can only wonder what is in store after he watches this unmitigated disaster.