There’s a gathering of tribes in the city. “Our languages, our backgrounds, our cultures are different, but together we have been drawn to this place…” No, it’s not the Olympic village – we’re in Caledonian Park, and Babel isn’t part of any Olympic fandango (though it is brought about by World Stages, a project between eight theatres celebrating ‘London in the world’.)
This north London park is an ideal venue: not only does it come with a whacking great clocktower, but it also has a history of hosting everything from bear baiting to political protest. Babel has a community cast of over 300 and is the brainchild of Bill Mitchell’s Wildworks, who specialise in large-scale shows: they staged The Passion in Port Talbot last year.
The audience enters through the park’s wooded fringes, where the cast go about their business: making sandwiches, doing the ironing halfway up a tree. Inside, we mill between different stages, short acts popping up: Indian dancing, teenagers beatboxing, African choirs… it’s a multi-culturalist’s wet dream. You can even buy chai cupcakes with Ghandi’s face on them.
But after 45 minutes, standing around on waterlogged grass is losing its charm. Sadly, when the play proper gets going, it’s just as muddy. The tower “calls” the people, but security guards want us removed. House-shaped wicker structures are forcibly moved, evoking the struggles at Occupy camps or Dale Farm. But these resonances aren’t really explored; instead the crowd is half-heartedly encouraged to bay at the nasty coppers. The whole thing lacks any real nuance or bite, as the struggles between the good people and ‘the man’ are rather limply played out.
Although enlivened by projections - an eyeball on the clock face is a neat surveillance image – the pace is sometimes groaningly slow. This means it’s hard to get swept along, making the schmaltzy declarations of our shared humanity (“I’m human because I have a voice!”; “I’m human because I feel!”) shouted out at the end harder to swallow. Hopefully Babel has been an edifying experience for those involved, but it doesn’t translate: I’m afraid I’m not quite feeling the “radiant beauty of the world” they speak of.
There’s obviously something laudably celebratory about bringing diverse communities together, and here the Tower of Babel is recast not as a tale of human hubris but of people power and strength in numbers. This production certainly has the numbers, but sadly its many voices fail to say very much.