Wildworks with BAC, Lyric Hammersmith, Stratford East and the Young Vic
"The People are Gathering" the promo video says and indeed they are. The actors plus 300 community participants to start with and then the audience (at £22.50 a time, more on Saturday-Sunday) all gathering for an outdoor, site specific spectacular that pools the resources of some of our leading innovatory companies and forms part of the 2012 World Stages programme.
Outdoor shows are always somewhat problematic. Wildwood's Bill Mitchell says there is no such thing as bad weather—only unsuitable clothing. Umbrellas are frowned on so be prepared. Luckily I was not in London for the rainy press night and after a sunny day things were drier though chilly, so perhaps I saw it under better conditions than most of my colleagues.
Caledonian Park is dominated by a tower that originally formed the centre piece of a cattle market opened by Prince Albert in 1855, though the rest of it was demolished after the Second World War. It was here that drovers brought their beasts to feed London. Some years earlier, in 1834 this was the place, then known as Copenhagen Fields, where 100,000 people gathered to start a great protest march, carrying a petition signed by twice as many, demanding the release of what we know as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset farm workers who had been sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for forming a trade union. (An event whose 175th Anniversary was celebrated here in April 2009.)
Although its history makes this a meeting place there seems nothing in this site-specific work that draws directly on that background, nor, despite the title, is this a retelling of the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. According to the book of Genesis, God, seeing mankind's ability to co-operate in building a tower that reached up to heaven, decided to curb their ability to achieve things that might challenge him by making one people with one language into a multi-tongued diversity who would not understand each other and "scattered them... upon the face of all the earth." What this show seems to present is a call for a reversal of that process and a celebration of the multi-ethnicity of London.
Its very simple story line presents us with a property owner and authority figure seeking to drive people away who are encroaching on his tower by building their homes in its vicinity. This dispersal has echoes of the Dale Farm evictions and the tent city at St Paul's but there is no specific identification, no explanation. It is just "us" against the baddie. Who is he? Has director Bill Mitchell dared to suggest a rising against God? No, this is a human: landowner, capitalist, dictator, dressed in militaristic black he is in direct line with the landlords of Victorian melodrama. It is not, quite frankly, much of a plot and some of the dialogue exchanged across this vast space is repetitive and banal despite the energetic playing of the protagonists.
But I am jumping the gun; it is an hour after you pass through the park gates before the "play" itself begins, more than half the evening is the lead up to it. First you must wait in a long queue marshalled around the perimeter of the park until they open, not before 8.30. Welcomed as you enter by a multi-ethnic group who may speak to you in London voices, accented English or foreign tongues the audience then process through the woodland that surrounds the park's grassy open space and are offered a succession of what in a gallery would be called installations to view or go up close and inspect.
It is a leisurely wander but, though you break ranks, there are marshals to keep you en route as you pass a pattern of bowls of flame, a man manipulating a crystal ball, a man who wonders where all these people have come from to his local park. There are figures mystical, an eastern prophet, an African woman with a drawn sword and everywhere white trench-coated guardians who could be angels, but most of the people are much more everyday.
Incongruously set among the greenery you can come across all kinds of domestic activity: a man having a lonely supper, a woman reading in bed, a girl ironing up in a tree, someone peeling vegetables, a guy with a can of beer watching television, a Muslim at prayer, a woman lighting candles at a shrine, a would-be author starting to type and then scrapping page after page, a girl in a sleeping bag on a muddy path, a woman hanging up clothes, another sitting just gazing at a photograph (go up close what's it of?) one of the "angels" hidden in a bush playing a trumpet, another in a clearing singing and playing an accordion, on a bench there's a boy tearing bread into pieces which he throws on the ground before him while behind him a decorative birdcage hangs empty.
There are open books to read, a just-begun watercolour, carved tablets like gravestones with message on them (one records Charles Darwin finding plant seeds in bird dropping) and scattered throughout there are mirrors, hanging from branches, to reflect you as you pass them. Once or twice someone is talking: you can stay and listen: one young man muttering unflattering remarks about others. Often there is a table lamp to emphasise the domesticity of the setting.
Despite the incongruity of the juxtaposition with nature, these are clearly the ordinary folk of the city in all their diversity just going about their lives. The performers are committed and concentrated but we have seen this kind of thing often before, though perhaps not in such quantity. Was it just the long wait outside that meant that rather than get caught up in their worlds I could not help thinking how boring it could get having to do it?
Structures turn out to be bars or house musicians or solo acts such as a man swinging balls on strings or another doing some sort of martial art. Another queue forms up for a tent on a platform for which entry is carefully restricted. As I wait, a young woman offers me a tray and I choose a folded paper which she reads me. Up the steps and inside I find a fortune teller, massage on offer, recipes, advice and other messages hung upon a washing line to take away or leave your own, a map of London on which to mark your favourite places, another of the world on which to make comments. A handsome young South Asian circulates offering biscuits and in the centre, kneeling on a circle of cushions I learn the words of an African lullaby and sing along with it.
A noise outside alerts one to things beginning to happen and leaving the structure I find chairs have been lined up at the edge of the platform so I take one. There is already a dense crowd in the centre of the space. If I join them, I would have to push through to the front to see anything so I stay at this vantage point, though it is probably not the best place to share what is supposed to be an "immersive" experience.
I am a fan of promenades and interactive theatre and perhaps, had I been down there in the thick of it, there might have been some magic that gripped me but it would have little to do with the actual content of the performance. There was nothing to indicate why we were gathered together, whether celebration or protest, we remained onlookers merely as tiny figures played things out at the tower top or amplified voices told us what was happening inside it.
There are so many issues of importance our city at the moment, but this simplistic fable failed to connect up with real life. Though like any melodrama it gets a happy ending, but what makes the baddie back down? The plot just isn't worked out, it is too woolly. One tent in which women are knitting woollen everything—including the London Eye and other landmarks—is a metaphor for the show itself. An upbeat parade of community performers carrying lighted models of buildings is presumably the people taking over but although the end up with a celebratory dance it signally failed to draw in the audience—and I felt the same about most of the show.
With a show on this scale, one needs something spectacular, either visually or in the action and on that score this doesn't deliver. Matched to a thin script this was a great disappointment. Like Bakst having to brighten his designs for each Diaghilev ballet revival, perhaps past successes leave us needing more to make the same level impact, but everyone has the occasional dud and I look forward with interest to see what Wildworks will come up with next.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton