Outside Caledonian Park mechanical noises and human voices float down from behind the trees. It only adds to the suspense to see Babel, the grand scale site-specific production by Bill Mitchell (director of Michael Sheen’s The Passion in Talbot) that was in the making for two years through participatory projects across London.
Once I enter through the gates, I find myself in an alternative world: underneath colourful lights, people in different robes with different languages welcome the audience, guardians dressed in white tell us they are glad we came, and security personnel ensures we don’t stray too far into the woods.
Spread between the bushes and the trees along the path are people doing ordinary things like playing music, watching television or reading a book in an extraordinary way. We are led to The City, loosely based on the biblical tale of Babel, when humanity built a tower to reach God an ill-fated venture as the tower broke, scattered humanity and gave them different languages. In Mitchell’s city, fire torches shine on different tents and stages and its inhabitants, and the tower is guarded by security.
Note that though there are a few plastic paths between different venues, it is wise to bring appropriate footwear for the grass.
Everywhere in the city you are welcomed to join in: there is a place for knitters with an impressively knit city; there’s a tent where you can find a massage and sweets, there is even a map of the city to study. The different stages host different artists from big bands to dancers and spoken word acrobats. Among the crowds dwell city inhabitants who will give you gifts or start an act. It all blends into a wonderful cacophony of sounds and sights: take time to explore while enjoying a drink bought from the bar or a cupcake bought from the café on site.
Suddenly a man appears by the tower, sharing its story: how the tower is calling the people, who build dwellings around it. As we gather for his story, security is trying to move the dwellings and is even ordered to pull down a home. We become part of the story of the man against the oppressor, light against dark, aided by impressive massive projections. The climax is gentle, gentler than expected but more appropriate, and as the dwellers unite they form a visually stunning display.
Mitchell managed to turn a big scale production in a wet and windy park into an heart warming tribute to ‘the diversity of language, culture, ethnicity and identity’ – indeed, ‘a celebration of common humanity.’
Babel runs until May 20 at: