Babylon Beyond Borders - an ambitious show that takes an earnest, big-hearted look at our common ideas of humanity and community across the world. Annabel Mellor reviews:

It’s 2pm in New York, 5pm in Sao Paulo, 7pm in London and 9pm in Joannesburg. In all four cities simultaneously, the lights go down and Babylon Beyond Borders goes up.

A hypnotic opening sequence combines music from New York with performers dancing from the other three cities. We get a brief rundown of the story of the Tower of Babel from a chorus of women in London, which (in the Old Testament) God strikes down, scattering the united people who had been building it, and dooming them never to understand each other’s language again.

Babylon Beyond Borders Bush Theatre

Cast of Babylon Beyond Borders (image courtesy of Wasi Daniju)

There follows an exploration of famous towers in the modern era which, like the Tower of Babel, united their communities before being torn down. This is where Ruthie Osterman’s empathetic direction is at its strongest, building understanding for the specific challenges the people of each city are facing.

The scenes dedicated to the Grenfell Tower disaster in London are sensitive and powerful and Annie Siddons‘ fiery writing shines in the hands of the principal cast: Lydia Bakelmun, Carol Walton and Afia Abusham.

Lydia Bakelmun, Afia Abusham & Carol Walton (image courtesy of Wasi Daniju)

Unfortunately, Babylon Beyond Borders starts to lose its coherence at the critical two-thirds mark, where it departs from the tower theme and throws in some heavy-handed satire on the anti-immigration sentiment stirred up in Britain by Brexit. It’s difficult to follow the thread at this point and there are lurching shifts in tone that seem to serve no narrative purpose.

For the most part, however, what this show lacks in drama it makes up for in feeling. There are some particularly touching sequences featuring the performers in Sao Paulo which, despite happening thousands of miles away, feel just as ‘live’ as the action on the Bush stage. All credit here is due to the show’s live stream producer, Heather Pasfield.

Babylon Beyond Borders Bush Theatre

Carol Walton (image courtesy of Wasi Daniju)

Despite a few minor glitches, which are absolutely forgivable in such a technically ambitious show, there is a palpable sense of community between the audiences and performers across all four cities. It’s moving to remember just how far away the other theatres are, when they feel so touchably close.

Advancing live-streaming capabilities give us a chance to explore the intrinsic value of live art and the unique opportunities of sharing a collective experience with others. In a world where most of us withdraw to binge Netflix shows by ourselves, it’s important for live media to innovate and create new opportunities for audiences to build bridges.

★★★☆☆

Babylon Beyond Borders played at Bush Theatre until 16 February 2019. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the venue website.