“Come, We’re Building Our Civilization!”
Babel in London
Performed on in Caledonian Park in the north London district of Islington, Babel was the centerpiece of a logistically and artistically impressive May season assembled by WorldStages London as a kind of theatrical Olympic Games, but based on the idea that international artistic collaboration can be as exciting as international athletic competition. A theatrical initiative of this scale and ingenuity is a daunting endeavor; involving polyglot casts and international themes, some of the WorldStages shows were developed on and will travel to other European stages.
The Tower of Babel story seemed perfect for the idea of a world stage—humans working together in the single-tongue of the theater only to be dispersed by a God uninterested in power sharing. Directing the extravaganza was Bill Mitchell, at the head of his Cornwall-based Wildworks theater company dedicated to “site-specific” projects. Caledonian Park duly provided the central prop—a fine mid-nineteenth century clock tower that rises some hundred feet above what was once north London’s largest cattle market.
The audience formed a line along the wall running around the edge of the park before being admitted at twilight. Ominous signs warned the open-air theatergoers that the use of umbrellas would not be allowed during the performance. Telling an Englishman to sheath his brolly during a rainy Spring visit to a park is like telling a Dutch hippy he can’t smoke pot. With such a daring edict, the WorldStages organizers showed themselves to be anything but risk averse. At least one previous performance had taken place in a downpour, but on my Babel night the sky was clear, the twilight etched by the contrails of Heathrow-bound jets. Like pilgrims in a Fellini film, or perhaps cattle herded into market, we moved through the wooded periphery of the park. In the bushes and trees members of a huge cast divided into various factions dressed in diverse costumes grouped themselves into still smaller units: families at their tables; people lying in bed, reading in chairs, or making music. Some exchanged cryptic words or foreign greetings to passers-by. An old, disheveled man asked me what time it was and whether he’d eaten yet. I told him he had. Security forces in dark uniforms bustled about, occasionally giving audience members a quick going-over.
With the last sunlight gone and the Airbus running-lights having ceded part of the heavens to a bright Venus, the audience assembled in the central green, urged there by women in homespun clothing chanting “Come, we’re building our civilization!” Presided over by the tower, various pavilions hosted diverse cultural goings-on. An excellent octet made up of musicians capable of playing more than one instrument gave the proceedings a festive air. There is something not only virtuosic, but also mischievous about a bass player suddenly picking up a trumpet and letting fly. With Swing music that sometimes detoured into avant-garde solos, the band’s ebullient resourcefulness made out of their prelude and later also the postlude a colorful fitting frame for the action, as if to say that creativity can never be fully erased by repression.
The vibrant mood established by this band was tempered across the field by a choir in white cotton headdresses and robes singing down-to-earth hymns. Alongside them a virtuosic Pakistani male dancer whirled. Still farther around the green, militant knitters had made a yarn London—from Canary Wharf to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. They were still at their station knitting more landmarks—the London Eye and Norman Foster’s Gherkin. Farther afield, a story-teller delivered a hilariously updated account of the Babel tower, updated to a structure that sounded very much like the Dubai skyscraper built by power-tool toting construction workers who are having a hard time getting in touch with their feelings.
Eventually the various peoples of this theatrical world came together with stick structures and began building a settlement near the Tower. A man who spoke Arabic and English launched into a diatribe against authority, and had his backpack confiscated by the police.
The Head of Security, who had been surveying and occasionally accosting the crowd at the beginning of the evening, mounted a grandstand in front of the tower and through his bullhorn commanded the masses to move back.
The security chief mobilized his forces and his wit. “You need to move away from the tower! Why are you building your houses so close to the tower?” he demanded to know. The home-builders, who had carried their structures into the midst of the audience thus involving us in their protest, responded that they simply wanted a place to build a better life. “Oh.” came the security chief’s monosyllabic response. There was much talent on display in the park with the wide-range of singers, actors, and dancers, but the real star of the show was the Security Chief. He delivered his barkings and officious commands (“Clear out sector 2a! Move, move move!”) with a loony macho intensity that bubbled over into the comic. In real life his kind of mania would be deadly, but in the festive atmosphere of this open-air theatrical experience even he could hardly take himself seriously. As wielded by the Security Chief, the bullhorn became both an instrument of repression and the nose on the clown’s face.
His command to “Scan the Tower” for protesters and whatever other threats to public order might be lurking there yielded a dazzling effect, like the beam of a giant barcode reader proceeding up the facade from top to bottom. It was as if the stalwart Victorian structure were undergoing a modern medical procedure to which the venerable gentleman could object but could do nothing to stop, suggesting that even the monuments of the past aren’t safe from the probing security-maniacs of the present.
After this high-tech check, the Security Chief raced up inside the tower for a better view. Through rear-screen projection, his eye filled the clock face, blinking down malevolently. An Everyman laborer who refused to yield to the security forces’ eviction maneuvers was torn from the family table in his make-shift house then tortured in silhouette up in the tower.
The batty gentleman who had asked me earlier if he’d eaten (and whom I recognized as one of those actors one has seen many times on BBC dramas, but whose name I didn’t know and couldn’t find out, since there was no program) then gave an eloquently unhinged oration on rivers and sedimentation. The security forces moved the Occupiers back from their encampment and into the audience’s midst as the all-seeing-eye glowered down. At this point it looked grim for the forces of democracy and self-fulfillment.
But then Everyman laborer was rescued by a turncoat security officer who was hoisted up the face of the tower and then rappelled down with his new comrade. These stunts were rather nonsensical in terms of the somewhat underdeveloped story, but nonetheless made whacky and visually arresting use of the tower.
The Security Chief made a final attempt to hold the line and his forces together, and then without a dramatic build-up meekly gave in to the Occupiers’ demands. This precipitous capitulation brought the whole dramatic arch of the evening tumbling down: a daring abseil from the heights should not have been enough to have the bad guy lay down his billy club and bullhorn.
In a final memorable image, the security line gave way, and the untied peoples of the Caledonian field carried their houses illuminated by stage lights raking back to the foot of the tower and then turned and lofted up one communal hymn. Unfortunately, their solemnity seemed more oppressive than the madcap machinations of the toppled Security Chief.
After this cloying choral benediction, the Swing Band struck up its irreverent strains one last time, as if to goad the good and to suggest that things might have turned out differently if the Security Chief had sat in with them, bullhorn at the ready.
In transplanting a bit of the Babel story into an open space with the requisite tower, the vibrancy of this theater entertained and surprised and occasionally disappointed. It also showed how much less ambitious the aims of these theatrical Occupiers of Islington were than those of the biblical throng back in the Land of Shinar. Rather than vertical striving towards God, these meager folks just wanted a few square feet of horizontal space to laydown a modest foundation. For one brisk London evening they got it.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org