Babel is a site-specific World Stages London collaboration between Kneehigh offshoot WildWorks, the BAC, the Lyric Ham, Stratford East and the Young Vic. 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 and the mingling.
Maybe that will be enough, for the show’s final message is - oh dear - love life, slow down, chill out.
This is a hippie-dippy-type festival event, with coloured lights and rock concert vibe, no different from what Welfare State were doing 40 years ago. It involves fire and music and moving on the undesirables in their tent-like, bamboo-structured homes in front of a famous Victorian clock tower, bastion of the officials.
During this terrible weather it’s depressing to have to trudge around the park on a muddy surface, tuning in to some random yoga-style performances, amateur choruses, a massage table in one of the several white-tented pavilions. And all this after traipsing through the forest paths where a strange mixture of security officials and self-obsessed losers intone that “We’ll wake them up soon,” or “It’s time to build a new city.” Some of them are in bed, others in nightwear, yet still more others working out what exactly they are supposed to be doing.
At least with Ken Campbell’s free-form epic style you got a few jokes and a dramatic point of concentration. And with European platform and booth theatre masters like Ariane Mnouchkineand Jerome Savary you got high performance and design standards, a genuine counter-cultural theatre blast.
Eventually, Babel singles out an individual case of repression and suspends the poor chap at the top of the tower while we are invited to retreat and save his life. I wanted him to abseil down the structure or even just fall off it, but astonishment wasn’t on this show’s agenda.
Director Bill Mitchell - recently responsible for Michael Sheen’s acclaimed promenade performance in The Passion in Port Talbot – is fully signed up to BAC’s mission “to invent the future theatre.”
But what does this mean? Babel feels like a nostalgic throw-back despite the quietly moving advance of the supernumeraries through the audience with their freshly illuminated model interiors and the mixing of actors and punters in a slow waltz while the band starts up in a far pavilion.
“Give grease a chance,” says a creepy, comic security officer, mocking the alternative lifestyle as thoroughly as the show he’s appearing in, while claiming a part in it. It’s this self-conscious, low-level, intellectual sloppiness I dislike most about events like these.
The mission statement for Babel suggests that dislocated people form the first tribes on earth and that we shall all come together in harmony and love. I felt the movement, and people were dying for this to happen. But it didn’t: instead, we slunk away in darkness and despair along the mean streets of Islington, trapped in a Bermuda Triangle not too far (or was it?) from the Caledonian Road.