Babel is a collaboration between some of the biggest and best companies and venues, done outdoors and on an epic scale. The centrepiece of a collaborative mini-festival that celebrates London and its 'cosmopolitan diversity', it really should be better than this.
We are led into Caledonian Park down a long, leafy path. People just off the path are behaving rather oddly, hoovering the forest floor, knitting, or otherwise doing something else slightly incongruous. White-robed figures intone that they're 'glad that we've come', that we should 'look harder', and that 'the city is waking'. The path finally spills out into an open central space - security guards patrol a number of tents, some of which hold bars and cafés, others small stages where a huge variety of acts perform songs, dances and stories. Once everyone has entered the space, the play begins - security try and push the mob of actors away from the tower, but in the end they manage to build houses at the foot of it. And the gates open and we're encouraged to leave.
For a piece that has been so relentlessly hyped, for its illustrious list of benefactors as well as its own self-professed intent to be 'the theatrical event of 2012', this is decidedly lacklustre - and smacks of design by committee, over any real attempt to create an exciting and evocative piece of theatre. The show itself is just so vacuous - there's no plot to speak of and no tension, which is suprising when there's even a man hanging off the tower at one point. It doesn't make any cohesive sense, and feels more like a vague collection of feelgood hippie themes thrust together to try and create some sense of community in post-riots London. As such, it is condescending and hopelessly right-on - and not really that interesting.
It's even more surprising that this is a collaboration between the Battersea Arts Centre, the Lyric Hammersmith, Wildworks, the Young Vic and Stratford East - all spaces and companies renowned for their innovative approach to theatre. They seem to have worked together and spent a fortune to try and recreate a hippie caravan site; because that's what this feels like, a mini-festival in some far-off field, replete with oceans of mud, tents full of people offering free massages and expensive drinks in styrofoam cups. This is about as innovative and theatrical as any event trying to recreate Glastonbury could be.
It doesn't even hang together. Why are people in white telling us that they're glad we're here? Where are we? Why are they so glad? Who are they? Why are random people doing random things next to a path? They clearly have no relation to each other - but they seem to have no relation to the play either. It's clear that large amounts of money, time and a generous pool of volunteers have all been engaged to make this happen, and there are a number of beautiful images and gorgeous effects - excellent projections, a train of lanterns that look like houses, and plenty of fire effects - but what on earth is it all for?
Beyond all of that, there is a frighteningly dangerous overtone to the whole event. As an audience, we're treated throughout like members of this fictional crowd of people, thus being pushed around and herded by aggressive and unpleasant security forces - and people around me were starting to engage with the piece, shouting at guards when they moved houses, up to and including an audience member throwing his styrofoam cup at one of the guards. This almost seemed to be encouraging the audience to join in with a sort of anti-police mob mentality, which you have to wonder about politically.
With little to no sense of what it is, what it's saying or what it might engender, Babel fails on all levels for me. It makes no sense and has nothing to say, except for a long list of platitudes. It may well be the most discussed theatrical event of 2012, but I can only imagine it will be so for all of the wrong reasons.