As the story of the Tower of Babel goes, the peoples of the earth joined together to build a tower that could touch the sky, touch the divine even, and to create a structure that could protect the masses from being smote by another great flood.
When God saw this, he was, shall we say, royally pissed. The very act of the masses working together to reach the level of the divine was the ultimate blasphemy to him, and so the peoples of earth had to pay for their sins. The God of the Old Testament was a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of deity, that’s for sure.
So God scattered all of the peoples involved in the project to every corner of the land and endeavoured to make it impossible for them to reach such lofty heights again – by giving each group their own language, cultures and traditions.
In some interpretations, this act doomed us to never truly understand each other, to never truly be able to work together to reach the divine due to our differences of languages, cultures and traditions.
But yet to others, this act created a beautiful diversity in our humanity, a way for us to be able to express, interpret and understand our world in as many ways possible, something that helps us to better understand the world around us.
Tower of Babel is the latest work created by Baran Theatre, an independent Australian-Iranian theatre company based in Brisbane whose works aim “to create social change transformational experiences for audiences”. Co-written by Nasim Khosravi and Greg Manning and directed by Nasim, Tower of Babel is a dense and ambitious piece that tells the stories of migrants and refugees who have come to Australia, what they bring with them and how this benefits our country, and what they risk to lose as they settle here.
The centre of Tower of Babel are the star-struck lovers Nahid and Marout. Nahid (Afsaneh (Tina) Torabi) is a political journalist from Iran, who had to flee the regime due to persecution and ultimately sought asylum in Australia. Marout (Steven Rooke) is an Aussie documentary maker who fell madly in love with her, and seeks to learn as much as possible about her language and culture. The audience is thrown into the middle of the story of these protagonists, in an immersive, multimodal experience that is guaranteed to stay with them long after they leave the theatre.
See, Nahid and Marout have created a multimedia project that showcases the stories and mythologies of migrants living in Australia, their own Tower of Babel per se. The audience is welcomed to the theatre by the actors, cast as guests of a showcase of the work so far, and offered all the hospitalities of food and drink. We are connected with other guests and supported to intermingle, until Marout calls for Nahid to arrive to begin the showcase itself.
Nahid and Marout share the stories of Nahid’s journey to Australia and why she had to flee Iran, how the couple met, and how Nahid has tried to start her new life in Australia. They share the challenges of the journey of an asylum seeker and their plans for Nahid’s to finally reunite with her family in Iraq after eight long years apart and to introduce her lover to them.
We also meet Marout’s family via the video messages they send to their son and brother. The family act as a modern greek chorus, trying to share their concerns about their couple travelling to a part of the world they don’t see as safe. But they couple are unperturbed. They have their love and their righteous cause, what could go wrong?
Tower of Babel is commendable in its scope and heart. Cleverly intermixed with the story of the couple are two other narrartive threads. Firstly, as a part of their presentation to us, Nahid shares the ancient myths of Venus and the Sun from cultures that lived in what is now Iran and Iraq. And the couple discuss their dream of using their trip to also capture the stories from across Iraq and to visit the ancient sites of Babylon, where some argued the Tower once stood. And finally, a friend of the couple, played by Anna Yen, shares the stories of her family’s journey to Australia and their desperate attempts to assimilate and shed all they were so that they could stay in their new homeland.
While there’s a lot going on in the breadth and scope of script, it is anchored by the emotional core of the story of the young lovers. The connection between Nahid and Marout is played beautifully by Afsaneh (Tina) Torabi and Steven Rooke. It is all parts young love, adoration and hope for the future. Afsaneh’s performance anchors the piece and we miss her almost as much as Marout whenever she is not on stage, which adds to the broader narrative. Their presentation and banter is natural and playful, and makes the transition between Nahid’s personal story and the mythology of Venus feel quite seemless.
The only point where this didn’t work for me was right at the end. The final part of Nahid and Marout’s story was compared to another legend, which for me muddied the impact of the challenges they faced. This may resonated more strongly if the script had just focused the emotion of what happened to the couple.
Director Nasim Khosravi utilises all aspects of the space, as well as projection and video, to great effect to tell the story of the couple. By immersing us into Nahid and Marout’s story as a guest of the showcase of their project, I felt an immediate connection to the couple, possibly added by wine or three I was provided upon entering the theatre. We were guided through and around the space, promenade style, which opened up the theatre space in new and engaging ways, which kept us connected to the cast and only added to how the story was told.
Video and projection were also utilised to great effect throughout Tower of Babel and worked seamlessly and added to, rather than overwhelmed, the broader narrative. They were utilised to create a live art gallery, to show video calls with friends and family and to help tell the stories of the ancient myths explored throughout the piece. Of particularly note were the stories of the migrants and refugees who had come to Australia projected throughout the space when we entered. I could have happily explored this video story gallery at length.
The Tower of Babel is a multi-layered, dense and ambitious work by one of Brisbane’s most exciting and innovative theatre companies. Through Nahid and Marout’s story, Baran Theatre highlights the narratives of migrants, the displaced and those seeking asylum and the universal search for safety and home. Visually stunning, charming and powerful, it’s a story that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. Highly recommended.
Ads J saw Tower of Babel on 23 November 2019. Tower of Babel plays at Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts until 30 November 2019.
Co-writer, Director | Nasim Khosravi
Co-Writer | Greg Manning
Dramaturg | Ben Knapton
Production Designer (Light, Sound & Vision) | Freddy Komp
Production Stage Manager | Jeremy Gordon
Lighting Design Mentor | Jason Glenwright
Composer | Bernard Houston
Movement Consultant | James Cunningham
Assistant Director | Hamid Sharif
Costume Designer | Niloo Tara
Singer | Maryam Parsi
Performers | Afsaneh (Tina) Torabi, Steve Rooke, Anna Yen, Angus Thorburn, Peter Condon
Musicians | Pouyan Khaki, Greta Kelly, Kambiz Dara, Arash Zanganeh
The developments of the work have benefited from the insights and contributions of: Erfan Abdi, Suzon Fuks and Hosein Khosravi.
Image design | Hosein Khosravi