Noah Babel’s Ark (2008)
It’s 1922 and Noah Babel is busy carving the last few animals for his carousel which he has been commissioned to build for Darke & Sanger’s Traveling Fair. His little workshop in Paradise Street, Bermondsey, is wedged between the towering walls of Sir Sidney Greenleaf’s leather works – and Sir Sidney wants him out so he can build a magnificent glass entrance hall to his factory.
Courteous Crump, the helpful manager of The Industrial & Marine Friendly Loan & Life Assurance Company (Bermondsey Branch), assures Noah that the carousel will pay for the last installment of his mortgage. But then the troubles start.
The loan is suddenly called in. Noah’s youngest son, Akiva, is insulted and thrown out of Mizzi’s nightclub. There are rattlings in the night, malicious slogans daubed on his door and the majestic Goliath, one of a pair of bespoke giraffes, mysteriously has his neck broken. Finally Inspector Slope of the Yard arrives to say Noah has been mentioned in connection with the death of a certain Pile, clerk to the above Courteous Crump, whose body has been found in the Thames.
While London dances at Mizzi’s to the latest jazz craze Noah is forced to pawn his precious gold watch to the sinister watch and clock dealer, horologist, and marine body collector, Fosca, whose shadowy premises overlook the river. Meanwhile it begins to rain. Black clouds gather. The river rises and swells – and the noses of Noah’s carousel horses, giraffes, lions, hippos, tigers and the rest, gathered two by two in his workshop, begin to twitch.
About the play – Noah’s Ark in Bermondsey?
“Noah Babel’s Ark” is set specifically in November 1922. Mussolini had just come to power and Fascism was sweeping across Europe, Lloyd George’s coalition had just fallen apart, power lurched backwards and forwards from Left to Right, a centuries old class structure was collapsing, national boundaries were changing from the Atlantic to the Balkans, there were pogroms in many countries, millions were looking for new homes, lives and identities – and as in the biblical Noah’s Ark story a Great Flood was beginning that destroyed the world. Ok, not an actual devastation by water, but a flood of hatred that led to the Depression, the 1926 General Strike, the 1929 Wall Street Crash, a second World War & the Holocaust. So great stuff for comedy then!
But comedy is other people’s tragedy. We laugh because it is not happening to us – not because we are indifferent, but because it confirms that we have survived. So although our play has one of the nastiest & most brutal characters we have ever created, it also celebrates the triumph of art & beauty, love & joy, over racial prejudice, crass materialism, the cold machinery of indifferent industrialism & the ‘mind forged manacles’ that William Blake drew our attention to in his poem ‘London’.
Marcus Charles Illions and Noah
Noah is a fictionalised version of Marcus Charles Illions, a Jewish wood carver who fled from Eastern Europe (Lithuania, but Poland in our version) & came first to England where he trained at Fred Savage’s in King’s Lynn, makers of fairground rides, before moving on to New York.
We have relocated Savage’s and Noah’s workshop to Bermondsey, South London, the heart of the leather industry. Part of a whole tradition of Jewish wooden synagogue carving in Eastern Europe going back hundreds of years, he was forced out by the pograms & had to adapt his skills to survive in the West, so took up carousel animal carving. Carousel is of course the European word; we call them roundabouts – and one type of roundabout was actually called a ‘Noah’s Ark’, because instead of horses (the ‘galloper’ type) it has a range of animals, placed two by two, and is a poignant link to the past & the Old Testament story.
Of course, Noah & his family are synonymous with the persecution of the Jews, but more importantly they represent the victimisation of society as a whole by the enveloping machine of a changing modern world, which ticks relentlessly on – taking up as we like to do a Chaplin-esque theme, for example in ‘Modern Times’ & ‘The Great Dictator’. In a way the Greenleafs are also victims, but whereas they seek solace in power and money, the Babels seek it in art and beauty. The carousel animals are a ghostly presence in our play, ready to be ridden, ready to make us laugh, the potential for hope, standing for the survival of beauty and joy when all around is bitterness & hate.
- Rosie Armstrong – Martha Babel, Edith Greenleaf, Elsie
- Joe Carey – Noah Babel, Huffy Winthorpe MP
- Amy Howard – Libby Perfect, Agnes Greenleaf
- Steve Simmons – Daniel Babel, Henry Cockle, Stiff Led Derek, Fosca
- Grant Stimpson – Sir Sidney Greenleaf, Pile, Mizzi
- Rowan Talbot – Akiva Babel, Mace, Courteous Crump, Inspector Slope
“What looks breathtakingly simple and at times quite crude is actually highly sophisticated. It is very enjoyable, beautifuly performed, and a reminder that this kind of unfunded, unsung work touring mostly to village greens and playing fields is a crucial part of our theatre ecology.”
Lyn Gardner – June 25 2008 – The Guardian
“A mix of blank verse, rhyme, stand-up, song, jazz and klezmer music (all from the same six prodigiously gifted actors) bowl the story along, leaving it to the troupe’s mimetic skills alone to create the carver’s workshop, a local nightclub, the mortgage broker’s office piled high with dusty ledgers, and finally and most spectacularly, the flooded Thames, which brings the villains their commeuppance. And all on an empty patch of grass. Staggering”
Jenny Gilbert – July 20 2008 – The Independent on Sunday