Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Well, I'd seen the 1925 silent movie version, and the more famous 1959 Charlton Heston classic (epics both), so tonight it was time to attend the world-premiere of the unhyphenated Ben Hur Live at the O2 Arena in London.

The Millennium Arena.  See, how hard was that?
Or as I prefer to call it, the Millennium Dome. I know, the name is synonymous with throwing tons of money away, an idea which is hardly attractive to theatre-goers. But really, who wants to replace that image with one of a theatre with so little creativity that its very name doesn't even cut it as an actual word?

Mightily important concerns over the venue's title aside, I think my even greater apprehension was at the title of the show. Just how ashamed was this high-profile modern production going to be of its second titular character - Jesus Christ - given that they had already removed him from the legend's name? Had he also been similarly excised from the story? Would he be an updated politically correct Jesus, preaching humanism and endorsing evolution? Would Ben-Hur's first name now be Ben? Would he and his best friend Messala now be gay lovers, in an attempt to be modern and relevant?

Oh yeah, I was a tough audience all right, so imagine the shock I got when the whole thing began and everyone was speaking in... German!

This was something of a lesson in humility. Here in the UK, we're so unused to getting shows second-hand from Europe. Especially before they've even been to Europe. And even more so when the German-sounding language actually turns out to be mixture of Hebrew, Latin and Aramaic, or today's approximations of it anyway.

So we had a local narrator explaining it all to us throughout. I say local – he was an AMERICAN! Oh, the insult. What an irony that the arena's truly abysmal acoustics rendered so much of what he said unintelligible.

Anyway, that's most of the (jokingly) negative stuff out of the way. The production itself was spectacular.

A cast, well, a circus really, of hundreds of people swarmed across the enormous stage-area, juggling, doing acrobatics, riding horses and probably sawing each other in half if you were in the right corner to see it.

Yes, I dared to take the above photo, but not you'll notice with a flash.

A huge sign on the way in had told us not to take flash photography during the performance, however no-one had read it. So the sea of dimly-lit patrons sparkled like a dirty canal on a summer's morning, as punters (no pun intended) constantly exercised their legal right to take pictures of whatsoever they pleased. After all, who could blame them, when they'd parted with so much cash simply to be allowed to come in? I got with the crowd and turned my flash back on again.

After about 15 minutes however, all the flashbulbs seemed to die-down during a particularly mesmerising dance-sequence. Me, I was humming the Vena's Dance music from Star Trek in my head. I think we had all just got into it.

There are three scenes that everyone remembers from the 1959 movie.


The scene when, while being dragged in chains through the desert, Judah Ben Hur (yes they got that right) is given a drink of water by a mild-mannered carpenter's son.


The scene when the pirates battle the slave ship upon which Judah Ben Hur is imprisoned. This was a bit magical, the sea being conjured-up with a carpet of dry-ice.

The pirates were zooming around in miniature buggies, which were also a little on fire so that we knew they were the bad guys. Well, the bad guys who weren't the Romans anyway.

In a nice nod to the 1959 version, this culminated in an allegedly 25 minute interval, which I spent on a wandering odyssey of my own in search of any ice cream vendor with a queue less than half a mile long. (Four pounds a tub. Four. Pounds. Four.)


You know the third one.

But just how was all that whirring cutlery, stampeding horsemeat and bludgeoned Messala going to be realised on stage? They'd used real horses in earlier scenes, and indeed real actors, but they had all been fairly docile and under control. (yes, I am referring to both sets) Y'know, like a character was just riding a horse slowly, or leading one.

Now however, in the preparations for the big race, we witnessed Judah Ben Hur charging around in a chariot drawn by four horses, who within the story were out-of-control, and so he had to break them. Actors were jumping out of the way and everything. Well all right, all these circus-types were probably doing multiple back-flips and catching roses in their mouths to get out of the way, but I digress. I was impressed at both the wrangling and amount of rehearsal that it implied. Not to mention dental fees.

Incredibly, this turned out to be the supporting short to the main feature!

The build-up to the race was terrific. Judah Ben Hur's there at the starting line with his chariot pulled by four white horses, and his opponent from the dark side Messala is there with his chariot and four black horses too.

You can’t really blame them for only having the two chariots in a live show. This scene really goes on for a while in the movies, as the various chariots do multiple circuits of the track and all manner of cheating and death goes on. In the 1925 one, an actor actually did get killed on-camera, and they left it in. You really don't want to risk anything like that happening on stage... err... live.

Hey, nothing ever goes wrong at the Millennium Dome.

But here's the thing – three other chariots raced as well.

That's right – three. Each with four more horses.

So they're lining-up at the starting line and we have a total of twenty horses on the stage all getting ready to charge around the arena as the deadliest of Wacky Races is acted out in front of us.

In my seat I murmured inwardly to myself, "Myyy goodness. They are actually going to do this."

And. They. Did.

And they'rrre off! Messala's breaking from the bunch, Judah Ben's sticking to the rail, all we need now is for Assault to pass Battery...

And yes, they're all galloping around the arena as one by one wheels and other bits of essential charioteering equipment come away and go flying-off across the track, with concerned Roman Centurions chasing frantically after them.

But hold on. Isn't there a certain voyeurism to watching such a sequence? I mean, how much of what we were witnessing was actually for real? Forget all the controlled horseriding earlier on in the show, when Messala falls to the ground and is dragged around the course by his four oblivious horses, I ghoulishly pressed the shutter on my camera honestly wondering if the actor had gone down.

I know that's wrong, but I didn't have any time to think. The adrenaline was pumping through my veins in exactly the same way that it never does at the theatre. Oh they may not have done the thing with the knives on the wheels, or even had Messala cheating (suggesting that this sequence was wrapped up a little earlier than intended – more is listed as happening in the programme), but this sure was one special production. If I'd been humming Star Trek's Vena's Dance music earlier, then now it was probably the score from Amok Time.

I guess the only fly in the ointment for me would have to be the story's ending.

Judah Ben Hur, Miriam and Tirzah meet Jesus and are healed by him on Palm Sunday – when Jesus was still popular.

I don’t know the circumstances in the original book, but in at least one of the movies this takes place as a blood-stained Jesus is hauling his own cross through town. Judah Ben-Hur's realisation that sacrifice and love were the actual way to freeing his people sort of made more sense in that context, rather than this rather unpleasant implication that Jesus lived happily ever after. It also made more sense of the central dynamic that Jesus and Judah Ben-Hur's lives were intertwined with other, right unto Jesus' death.

This was a terrific show though. Sure, the sheer amount of money spent on it is a testament to consumerism, but I doubt that I will ever see another live show of this enormous scope again. Just look how many people, and animals, filled the stage for the curtain-call: (I had to turn the camera to an angle to fit them all in)

A cast of hundreds
Do I recommend it? It's up to you. The show is expensive, but that in itself makes this a once-in-a-lifetime evening.

And it's probably even better if you can understand Hebrew.

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2 comment(s):

At 6:04 pm, Blogger Brandon said...

Wow, That performance has to be a feat with all those horses....

At 6:16 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

I agree - ya gotta wonder if some nights Mesala wins by accident!


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