Sebastian Thrun, Michael Knese, Nina Wilden, Lili Gesler, Marina Krauser, Laszlo Rokas, Anton Grnbeck
Philip Wm. McKinley
Boasting that it features over 40 horses, 100 birds of prey and doves, 400 actors and crew members, a galley battle and the legendary chariot race, Ben Hur Live, which has its world premiere at the O2 Arena this week, could not be accused of selling itself short.
Indeed, so much was promised that it was difficult to believe that whatever was delivered on the night would live up to the advance billing. And, in the end, this proved to be the case.
Inspired by William Wylers now legendary film of 1959, itself based upon Lew Wallaces 1880 novel, Franz Abrahams Ben Hur Live has been fifteen years in the making.
In all that time, however, scant attention appears to have been paid to how the drama might be presented, and the show ends up broadly replicating the films plot without ever capturing a fraction of its human interest.
Narration is provided by Stewart Copeland, founder and drummer of The Police and composer of the shows reasonably effective music. The actors are essentially reduced to miming actions to Copelands commentary (his voice amplified to an almost intolerable level), simply uttering a few lines of Latin or Aramaic in each scene. It soon becomes wearing to learn of the developing relationship between Judah Ben Hur (Sebastian Thrun) and his childhood friend Messala (Michael Knese) through being told that Messala is now more arrogant than when they last met or that Messala now feels more Roman than Jewish, rather than experiencing any real interaction for ourselves. True, subtle gestures would have no impact in this massive venue, but it seems a poor excuse for not so much weak, as non-existent, characterisation.
Visually the show fares far better. With designs by Mark Fisher (Chief Designer for the main ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics) and Ray Winkler, there are some wonderful props such as a wooden walled city and slender metal Corinthian columns. The real coup of the first half, however, is the galley battle, which features two beautifully crafted wooden boats where the slaves look entirely in place pushing them along on wheels rather than pulling at oars.
Here, however, the arenas size is a hindrance in that once the pirates have attacked on quad bikes, the ensuing battle appears stagnant because the action is confined to a single galley a fraction of the stages size. More generally, although the arena is frequently filled with scores of soldiers, market traders, gladiators and slaves, the standard of dancing and fighting is not always that high. There are exceptions, however, and the acrobats demonstrate some incredible feats of balance and strength as they stand several high on top of each other.
Fortunately, the shows one unqualified success is the chariot race. The same speed and tactics witnessed in the film could never hope to be reproduced live in an arena, but the horses, trained by Nicki Pfeifer, are skilfully handled to give the impression of running at high speed in the enclosed area, whilst also enabling the necessary overtaking to take place. Understandably, we dont see Messala splicing the other chariots to pieces with his rotating blades, but wheels fly off and chariots break nonetheless and in one dramatic stunt Messala is dragged across the ground for nearly a circuit.
With this scene followed by the emotive crucifixion of Jesus and the release of real white doves into the arena, Ben Hur Live ultimately makes the grade on the visual front, but dramatically it is rather a nonentity. After this week the show is set to tour Europe, but in the long-term, since fifteen years have already been invested in the project, it might be worth it taking the time to overhaul its narrative aspect.