A folly, architecturally speaking, is a building created primarily for decoration, one which suggests a significant purpose but in fact is purely ornamental: an extravagant and empty garden ornament.
Puffed as one of this year’s major theatrical events, with a cast of ‘up to 300’ and the backing of Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Young Vic, this should have been a jewel in the crown of World Stages London. Instead it’s a failure on almost every level that would be laughable had it not taken the efforts of so many talented individuals to realise. It’s impossible to discuss Babel without giving away some of its secrets, so if you want to experience the full weight of disappointment for yourself, better stop reading.
Things start with a spark of promise, as the audience files into the main park site through a long pathway lined by performers. There’s an intriguing mixture of activities on display: a woman irons her laundry up a tree, a man feverishly washes his face; we see performances, ceremonies, rituals. Every performer is alone, perhaps scattered in their variety like the people of Babel. Unfortunately there are also the figures in white intoning portentous phrases, ‘We’re going to wake them up soon…’, ‘It’s almost time…’, sadly it’s this tone of pseudo-mysticism that pervades the rest of the evening.
The park itself is scattered with gazebos and scaffold watchtowers, and for the first half the audience is left to explore. There’s music, a few bars and we’re encouraged to help the wandering performers ‘create a new city’, joining them to bind together canes into makeshift dwellings or adding our own plasticine creations to a squishy blue landscape. It’s like a tame and soggy Burning Man.
The usual problem with promenade performances, in which you constantly worry something more exciting is happening elsewhere, is successfully avoided by pitching almost everything at the same ho-hum level. A knitted miniature London is an impressive exhibit, much of the music is enjoyable and on a dryer evening the atmosphere would surely be more convivial, but it’s not enough. The early portion of Babel would make for a pretty crap London fair, except that fairs are free and Babel costs upwards of twenty quid.
There’s little to watch and little to do, performers mill about with more ominous pronouncements about the tower, and there are a few police-state-ish security guards eyeing us suspiciously, but despite the huge crowds everything feels empty and underwhelming.
Things worsen when the play proper begins. Bland in tone and confusing in detail, it’s a careless mish-mash of Orwellian clichés wrapped in a patronising skein of angst at the plight of the world’s refugees. The tower becomes an all-seeing eye of authority, instructing the crowds to move their dwellings away, but where this seems to offer an opportunity for interaction and resistance, the performers block this at every step. With a crowd as large and dissatisfied as the one gathered on the boggy green last night, it would have been easy to stir up some popular rebellion, but instead we’re left as passive spectators to a well- trodden political fable. It’s baggy, silly and manages to be both overblown and underdone at the same time.
One of the core problems is that the audience are never made fully aware of their position in relation to the action. Are we refugees? Or just visitors? We certainly helped in creating the settlement, but why aren’t we allowed to protect it? So much of the time the theatrical experience is pulling in the opposite direction to the text. We’re robbed of moral agency and then begged to use it. Rebel, we are told, make your voices heard; move back, we are instructed, this is part of the show. They even made Charles Spencer put his cigarette out. Fascists.
What little direction there is finds itself hamstrung by the sheer scale of proceedings and the performers suffer beneath an appalling script full of platitudes and self-help manual affirmations. Shared Space and Light contribute some suitably grandiose video projections, the moment in which they X-Ray the tower is the show’s undoubted highlight. Ultimately, however, it’s a disaster, and one which belies Wild Works’ strong reputation for immersive experiences. Pompous, misconceived and with all the joie de vivre of a traction engine rally on a wet Sunday afternoon, Babel is a folly, and a pretty self-important one at that.