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Review: Babel

Thank God the Brits love queueing in the rain. The preamble to Babel feels a lot like Wimbledon, as an audience of nearly 1,000 waits outside a sodden Caledonian Park in London. Unfortunately, just like poor old Tim Henman and Andy Murray, Babel fails to live up to the hype.

This could have been extraordinary. Created by World Stages London, WildWorks and Battersea Arts Centre and boasting a 300-strong cast of community volunteers, Babel promised theatre on an epic scale. I was expecting spellbinding choirs and eye-popping visuals. But what we got was a kind-hearted but half-baked festival, sorely in need of a headline act.

The show is split into three unconnected segments. The opening section is intriguing, packed with quirky, imaginative visual flourishes. As we wind through the park, white-robed creatures hover around us and makeshift homes pop up in wild, unlikely locations. Ladies iron in trees, lads read in armchairs strewn with leaves and televisions flicker behind bushes.

Distant bells begin to clang and the audience swarms towards the central field. So far, so odd and engaging. But as soon as we hit the centre of the park, the spell is broken. The scant narrative is dropped and the show transforms into a hippy-friendly festival. There’s a knitting stand, a new world made entirely of plasticine, a stream of street performers and, for no apparent reason, a massage parlour. It’s all jolly good fun but it adds little to the show.

When the narrative finally resumes, involving a young family determined to stand their ground, it’s too little too late.

It’s such a slight story for this grand stage and isn’t nearly powerful, or clear, enough to draw the audience in. As the family is evicted, the crowd whispers in dissent but without much conviction. It’s hard to care all that much, when you’re not entirely sure who or what you’re meant
to be supporting.  

There are still some wonderful special effects here and the grand, Victorian clock tower looks splendid, lit up in all its glory. But as striking as these visuals are, their impact is slight. The visuals come in short, meaningless bursts and, unlike the tower of Babel, never build up towards something truly majestic.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis