“The people are gathering and a timeless story continues.”
When you throw around words like “epic” in your publicity material, you are giving yourself a lot to live up to. BABEL may have been quite large but sadly it was rather lacklustre and, having gathered people together as promised, failed to do or say very much at all. It had some nice ideas about community and transcending barriers of culture or language but it had nothing new or particularly insightful to say. The biggest idea? We should all be nice to each other. Um, well, yes.
Having succeeded (after a trek through the park) in gathering people together into a central space, with tents and mini-stages around the circumference, we are left to mill about rather aimlessly for the best part of 40 minutes. There are bits and bobs to see and listen to, but the most basic of sound errors dogged these performances: the intimate and charismatic storytelling was drowned out by the band next door, rendering it inaudible and consequently rather less effective as a means of communicating what we were doing there.
The evening picked up a bit when the main narrative thread began: we, the people, have gathered at the foot of the (magic?) tower to reassert our humanity in the face of an oppressive regime. I think. It’s not terribly clear, and the actual story is slim at best. The projections onto the tower itself are extremely effective, especially an image of an eye across the clock at the top, watching the assembled crowd. However, the limp and rather garbled script is repetitious and un-naturalistic, leaving the cast floundering for much of the evening. To my taste, ideas that must have seemed powerful in conception were trite in reality, particularly the cries from around the park of “I am human because [insert attribute here]”. It kind of works when we’re being told a story – I like stories – but when it tries to be profound it falls flat, and often strays into banal pomposity.
The piece touched on some interesting ideas, particularly about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of crowds, and how we react unquestioningly to figures of authority even when they are unequivocally in the wrong. It didn’t do more than touch on them, briefly, though, and with such a large group this crowd of strangers never really coalesced to find the beating heart of community which I think we were supposed to find. The rosy glow of the entirely predictable ending was overshadowed by the fact that I’m not completely sure what happened in the preceding 45 minutes: an insurgent was dragged into the tower, dangled off it for a bit, and then brought out and reunited with his wife and child. That’s kind of it. It’s a very slim piece made big by padding it with rather awkward semi-interactive bits and a huge cast. As a small piece exploring some of its deeper concepts it could have worked, but when stretched as thin as this it ends up seriously underwhelming.
BABEL is playing at Caledonian Park until 20 May. For more information and tickets, see the BABEL London website.