Islington's new Tower of Babel
London's best off-West End theatres join forces for a 'World Stages' season
When Wildworks and National Theatre Wales took over Port Talbot for a contemporary Passion play starring Michael Sheen last Easter, Londoners could only admire from afar. We're not accustomed to missing massive cultural events, but we had to make do with live blogs about the Manic Street Preachers gig at the Seaside Social and Labour Club and grainy cameraphone videos of Sheen lugging a huge wooden cross through the streets.
This year, London's turn has come. Wildworks is providing the centrepiece of World Stages London, a one-off festival born out of collaboration between eight major London theatres which started from the question: what might we do together that would couldn't do alone?
More than anything else in the programme, Wildworks' 'Babel' provides an answer. Four theatres, led by Battersea Arts Centre, have joined forces to produce this large-scale participatory project, involving a cast of 500 professional and community performers, in Caledonian Park.
Like 'The Passion', 'Babel' has biblical roots, specifically in the Book of Genesis. That story is a fable about mankind's hubris. But 'Babel' will offer a more celebratory interpretation: about the power of a universal language and shared humanity.
In the Bible story, the famous tower - and the city that surrounded it - were scattered to the ends of the earth by God, who divided their one language into many to prevent them from working together to build a stairway to heaven. But it can also be read as proof that, with one language, humanity was capable of anything.
With more than 300 languages spoken in London and the Olympics pulling the capital together, it seems a fitting metaphor. 'It's very easy to find stories about a hero who does this or that,' explains Bill Mitchell, Wildworks' artistic director, 'but I'm always looking for subject matter where it's the people themselves who are expressing something.
Our projects allow people to tell their story. Community is the protagonist.'
It will be at the heart of the many-sided two-hour event that promises crowd-sourced videos and communal singing, alongside grand aerial spectacle and intimate storytelling.
However, the community might have to share top billing with Caledonian Park's extraordinary clock tower. Until December, Battersea Power Station was the favoured site, but its collapse into administration in 2011 left 'Babel' homeless with only six months to go. Mitchell is nonetheless delighted with the new site: 'It's a lost icon of London,' he says. 'It's great that people will discover it for themselves.' Inspired by 'Babel', local residents recently fixed the clock itself, which had been stuck at 3.20 for years.
The park itself has a rather chequered past. Over the centuries, it has been home to a house of ill-repute, mass protests of 30,000 people and a cattle market complete with state-of-the-art abattoirs. The clock tower, marble white and copper green, is its central point. At 47 metres high - somewhat smaller than the 2,484 metres, according to the Book of Jubilees, of Babel's tower - it provides stunning views of London's more famous towers. (Each one honours something: God. Communication. Money. Stock cubes.)
From its top balcony, reached by a series of creaking ladders, London looks like a patchwork quilt. Wildworks intends to bring the city together and, each night, 'Babel' will attempt to transform a crowd of up to 1,000 individuals into tribes and, finally, a single group, staring up at the tower together.
'The essence of the story is people trying to make the perfect city,' says Mitchell, 'London's trying too, but the reality is different. A lot of people don't fit into the city as it exists. In “Babel”, we'll make the perfect city. I'm hoping that we'll leave the aspiration behind and show that it's possible after all.'