Six of the Best: Scathing Babel Reviews

With the dust beginning to settle around the remains of the ill-fated Tower, it only remains to pick through the rubble for some choice quotes from a set of reviewers who have acted with a singularity of purpose that one wishes might have applied by the eight partner companies behind Babel.

With hindsight it seems horribly inevitable that a production based on the story of the development of languages should be so inchoate in its own messages. Working together like a pack of wolves scenting blood, reviewers of all shapes and sizes have seized on its weaknesses in order to give all concerned a right kick in the Babels.

Given the general tone of respectable politeness that most of my peers exude the only reasonable explanation is some kind of Village of the Damned-style mind control. Tragic of course, but rather than waste the opportunity this humble reviewer has taken the opportunity to gather together the most scabrous, haranguing, bad-temperedly bilious reviews in one easy cut-out and keep article. So do please enjoy.

Six of the best

6. Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

“The best part of it is the queuing outside (rather like on the first day of a Lord’s Test Match), the bar inside, the gathering in the Pleasance round the corner…”

Well it seems only fair that we kick off with one of the more positive reviews. It is true that a £3.50 for a decent sized cup of red wine, the bar on site proved to be remarkably better value than the eye-wateringly high prices that regularly empties the pockets of punters frequenting the Barbican.  The review does rather go downhill from there…

5. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…politically correct, dramatically inert and involves a great deal of tiresome queuing

Ok, scratch that, maybe not everyone liked the queuing.

4. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“…sickly stench of hippyish platitudes and synthetic good will”

Hmm, it really does seem that people were turned off by the do-gooding spirit of the whole affair. Perhaps audiences have become more cynical but I am sure that we weren’t the only ones expressing some sympathy with the guards, particularly when being forced to face protestors with sentiments that sounded like they were agreed by passing around a conch at a commune in the 1970’s.

3. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…we are instructed to “cherish the child that holds your hand.” At this point I thought I might throw up.”

Yes, there really was a backlash against the way the sentiment in the show is presented. Even our muesli-eating friends at the Guardian had problems with it being ‘too politically naïve, too lacking in complexity and texture’. If they hoped it might strike a chord with those issue-conscious Indy readers then, well, bad luck: making the schmaltzy declarations of our shared humanity […] shouted out at the end harder to swallow”.

=2. Eleanor Turney, A Younger Theatre / Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

banal pomposity” / “self-conscious, low-level, intellectual sloppiness”

A tie for 2nd place as A Younger Theatre and What’s On Stage battle it out for the most succinctly elegant riposte. Turney wins on artful simplicity, whereas Coveney has the edge on bilious testiness.

And our winner is…

1. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“Only the spirit in which Babel was conceived saves it from being irredeemable. In its execution, it ranks as a failure on all fronts, most significantly on the grounds that it fans the very cynicism that it sets out to counter”

Umm, ouch. As an introductory paragraph this pretty much takes the biscuit. In most of the reviews it would take until the second or third paragraph before really laying into the production but Trueman sets his sights on the jugular from almost the first word. In fact the whole effect is magnified by the half-hearted attempt to inject some positivity by referring to the spirit of the production. I remember being in a rugby team walloped by over 100 points against our public school betters, apparently we could console ourselves in the fact we ‘played the game with spirit’. It didn’t console me then, and it shouldn’t console anyone now.

Tower of Babel crumbles to reveal evidence of shonky workmanship

Babel – Performed at Caledonian Park,  until May 20th 2012

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.

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