Review – Ben Hur Live!, O2 Arena

Saturday 19 September 2009

BHL-447x324This was the Whingers’ first visit to the O2 Arena which has not had a good year: there’s been an awful lot of space to fill due to the death of Michael Jackson and there’s an awful lot of space to fill inside. Inserting “live” in the title of Ben Hur seems particularly perverse, not to mention the name-check for one of the singer’s most famous ditties. But we digress. We procrastinate. Because…

Oh dear, “artistically” things are rockier between the Whingers than they have been for quite some while. The minor schism that developed over Talent has now, thanks to Ben Hur Live at the O2 Arena, broadened into a rift so wide you could drive a quadriga through it.

So, no co-operation, no collaboration, no unified voice. We have to go our own separate ways…

Phil says… Andrew says…
What’s to like?

Well the O2 certainly: the marshalling of the audience is more painless than it ought to be and the sheer bonkers audacity of Ben Hur Live is extraordinary.

Yes, there’s plenty of horses, yes a donkey and a few doves (but certainly not the advertised 100 birds unless they’re counting understudies) and where were the falcons and vultures? Were they doing a Lesley Garrett and indisposed on Friday evening?

But that’s the problem with arena staging, where do you look? The vultures may well have been circling over the Whingers’ heads waiting to pick them off but they didn’t see them. Despite the best seats in the house, it all seems to be happening in some far off land. The production lacks focus and it’s easy to miss what’s going on. Both Whingers had problems spotting Christ or working out which was Ben Hur’s chariot in the show’s raison d’être, the over-hyped race.

Why do people go to stadium shows at all? Can you imagine watching Michael McIntyre in the O2? Well some evidently can as he’s already selling out. Even with binoculars involvement in the proceedings is impossible.

The leprosy could be easily missed without optical enhancement as everything has to be scaled up, the prosthetics resembled large bubble wrap glued to the casts’ faces.

Is it spectacular? Well it’s biggish, but not enough to fill the 02, the sets are feeble and bitty, a few metal structures resembling children’s climbing frames are pushed around the arena often obscuring the view of the action.

It’s not so much Holiday on Ice as Holiday on Sand. It’s the Royal Tournament with sandals and skirts, and as dull as either of those shows, a completely pointless endeavour. It’s carving sculptues out of matches in reverse, they do it because they can.

But really it’s about the statistics: 1,000 costumes, 4,000 props, 620 tons of sand, 62 trucks and 20 buses. Hurrah, the bus and truck show is back at last!

A portentous voice opens the show telling us how hard they’ve rehearsed, and to “give us the strength for it” (who, the cast or audience?). Imagine Nicholas Hytner getting out his begging bowl and pleading with a National Theatre audience before, say, Mother Courage .

On the plus side, if you squint through your lorgnettes, there’s some fantastically enjoyable overacting from the hard working extras and Stewart Copeland meandering around looking hopelessly lost, delivering his enjoyably daffy narration “the galleys were hell on earth”, which given they don’t flood the 02 is almost correct, “hell on sand” wouldn’t have quite the same ring. The slaves were “straining at the oars” when actually they’re straining to push the rubber tyre mounted galleys through sand. Not a whiff of an oar.

Act Two opens with the “Romans enjoying the pleasures of the flesh” in Messala’s House, presumably a gay club, as bare chested Romans gyrate in skeletal Roman columns and some La Dolca Vita style fannying around in fountains. Priceless if the ticket prices weren’t so exorbitant.

It’s as kitsch and camp as a trip to a religious theme park, but nowhere near as much fun.

If you like things like Cirque du Soleil you may well appreciate Ben Hur Live. No doubt it’ll go down a storm when it tours Germany.

As the lights went up Phil noticed a large, steaming, equine something for the roses in the arena’s sand. Who knew horses were such astute critics?

Latin, loincloths and leprosy. What’s not to like?

With 400 performers, 46 horses, two donkeys, five falcons, two eagles, two vultures and 120 doves, Ben Hur Live gives lie to the maxim that less is more. In fact, a bit more of everything wouldn’t have gone amiss in Andrew’s view.

For in these political-correctness-gone-mad days of every man and woman entitled to receive a living wage for their work, where else are you going to get the opportunity to see so many people performing at one time? Well, China, judging by the opening of the Beijing Olympics last year. But apart from China?

And not that it matters much, but Ben Hur Live is probably the closest thing the Whingers shall ever get to seeing the like of the Victorian theatrical realist spectacular they have read of with such envy. Ben Hur Live can only have been enhanced further by the addition of a waterfall, say.

There are, of course, those who will say that Ben Hur Live lacks nuance or subtlety as though that’s a bad thing. Frankly having all the dialogue in Latin and Aramaic was a blessed relief as it absolved one from having to listen. Much better to have Stewart Copeland tell you what’s going on in broad brushstrokes even if the narration is quite ghastly (“a Roman’s oath once given is a bond of steel”). But actually this would be quite a handy approach to making Shakespeare more endurable and the Donmar should look into it.

The book, incidentally, is written by the man who collaborated with Matthew Warchus on The Lord Of The Rings – the Musical! And if it’s occasionally rather jarring that it’s narrated by an American (“trade routs”??) it somehow seems appropriate because Ben Hur Live is, after all, a gloriously vulgar concoction.

And what’s wrong with vulgar? Well, it’s vulgar. But hand-wringing liberals who worry about the theatre being an exclusively middle-class domain should pop down to the O2 and see the riotous mix of people there. It’s fantastic. The Whingers can’t remember seeing women in skin-tight white track suits and Croydon facelifts having a last crafty fag outside the National Theatre before curtain up but they were at the O2.

And let us not fail to salute the revival of the old-style mad theatrical showman genius in the form of producer Franz Abraham who has spent 15 years and millions of euros realising his dream of bringing Ben Hur to the arena with a live chariot race. With a West end that seems to be bursting to the seams with lame adaptations of movies, here finally is an example of how to do an adaptation worthy of the effort. Yes, if Mr Abraham had the paucity of vision and ambition to bother adapting the The Shawshank Redemption you can bet he’d have kept the crawling-through-sewage scene in.

Andrew is so thrilled by the entire thing that he is even on the point of ordering his very own Ben Hur Live Commemorative Medallion from the Royal Mint which we can only presume has been taken over by the Franklin Mint recently.

There were other things the West End could learn from: a very generous glass of red wine was surprisingly “only” £4.80 and every member of staff we came into contact with was helpful, courteous and – unusually for the Whingers – we didn’t feel anyone was looking down their nose at us.

Of course, the evening was not without its problems. There are some questions still to be answered; notably: why did no-one in the show – Roman or Jew – have any body hair? There was no depilatorist credited in the programme but it must have been a full-time job for someone or else these actors have been specially bred for the purpose by the mad Mister Abraham.

And we have to own up to one embarrassing fact: that one visit from the West End Whingers caused the bar of this amazing 20,000 capacity venue to run out of red wine. Phil had to go on to rosé and drink even more like a girl. How embarrassing.

9 Responses to “Review – Ben Hur Live!, O2 Arena”

  1. Simone Says:


    It’s like being there with you guys, my dilemma is whose side to take?

  2. jmc Says:

    I’ve got a great deal of affection for the film, which seems to me gay not only in the Judah/Messala relationship but also in the Judah/Quintus Arrius bonding (older man “adopts” his hunky Roman slave, oh yeah?). Even the way Judah looks at Jesus is pretty cruisy.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing this at the 02, but I simply can’t talk anyone into accompanying me.

    The American narration is sort of appropriate, as the original novel was by an American, a certain General Lew Wallace.

  3. Martin Baker Says:

    I think this really defines the religious theme park genre:

    Looks like quite an experience I think you’ll agree!

  4. lavretsky Says:

    Neither of you explained whether the plebeians are in reserved or unreserved seating.

  5. Sam London Says:

    Apparently the doves and their driver got lost or stuck somewhere in quarantine so couldn’t make it for the opening.
    As for the film.. Gore Vidal told Stephen Boyd to play Messala as though he and Ben Hur had been lovers. They didn’t tell Charlton Heston that. But the knowledge certainly adds to the fun of watching the scene where they first meet.

  6. JohnnyFox Says:

    I’m afraid to go. Given the target audience I think it will be like a hyperactive trolley dash round a Roman branch of LIDL.

  7. FiFiD Says:

    I went to the opening and found it pretentious driville.
    Having bought mid range seats £55.00 per person, it was an expensive waste of money, we all contemplated leaving during the interval. I would certainly not recommend it to anyone.

  8. lupe soto Says:

    Ben-Hur (1959)
    Director: William Wyler
    Writers: Lew Wallace (novel), Karl Tunberg (screenplay)
    Stars: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd
    Release Date: 10 December 1959 (Argentina)
    Country: USA
    Release Date: 10 December 1959 (Argentina)
    Filming Locations: Arcinazzo Romano, Santiago Papasquiaro,Durango Mexico,Frosinone, Lazio, Italy
    PRODUCTORA Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
    PREMIOS1959: 11 Oscars, incluyendo película, director, actor (Heston), actor sec. (Griffith), montaje
    1959: Globo de Oro: Mejor película: Drama
    1959: BAFTA: Mejor película

    El Bueno El Feo Y El Malo
    TÍTULO ORIGINALIl buono, il brutto, il cattivo
    150 min.
    PAÍS Durango Mexico Coproducciónn Italia-España-Alemania; MGM release
    Sección visual
    DIRECTOR Sergio Leone
    GUIÓN Sergio Leone, Age, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni
    MÚSICA Ennio Morricone
    FOTOGRAFÍA Tonino Delli Colli
    REPARTO Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Mario Brega, Luigi Scarchilli, Rada Ras

    TÍTULO ORIGINAL: Jesus of Nazareth
    Filmada en Durango del 28 de Enero al 18 de Febrero de 1977.
    AÑO: 1977
    DIRECTOR: Franco Zeffirelli.
    INTÉRPRETES: Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, James Mason, Rod Steiger, Michael York, Peter Ustinov, Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, Claudia Cardinale, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Donald Pleasence, Fernando Rey, Christopher Plummer, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Cusack.
    DURACIÓN: 371 minutos
    GÉNERO: Drama

    Superman The Movies
    Release Date: 1978 – Warner Bros.
    Filmada en Durango del 15 de mayo al 18 de Febrero de 1978.
    Cast: Marlon Brando – Jor-El, Gene Hackman – Lex Luthor, Christopher Reeve – Superman/Clark Kent, Ned Beatty – Otis, Jackie Cooper – Perry White, Glenn Ford – Jonathan Kent, Trevor Howard – 1st Elder, Margot Kidder – Lois Lane, Valerie Perrine – Eve Teschmacher, Phyllis Thaxter – Martha Kent, Susannah York – Lara, Jeff East – Young Clark Kent.

    Piratas del Caribe: en el fin del mundo –
    Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom y Keira Knightley.
    filmada en usa en las bahamas y durango mexico marzo 2005
    Release Date: 25 May 2007 (USA)
    Walt Disney Pictures

    Never Say Never Again (1983)
    Release Date: 7 October 1983 (USA
    Dir: Irvin Kershner With: Sean Connery, Kim Basinger
    Action | Adventure | Thriller 134 min
    filmada en uk usa durango mexico 1980 estudio MGM

    Star Wars
    Director: George Lucas
    Writer: George Lucas
    Release Date: 25 May 1977 (USA)
    Filming Locations: Tikal National Park,Durango Mexico Guatemala filmada en julio 22 1976
    Production Co: Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Budget: $13,000,000 (estimated)

    Conan the Barbarian (1982)
    Director: John Milius
    Writers: Robert E. Howard (stories), John Milius,
    Release Date: 14 May 1982 (USA)
    Production Co: Dino De Laurentiis Company, Universal Pictures Filming Locations: Almería, Andalucía, Spain en durango mexico Budget: $20,000,000

    145 min.
    DIRECTOR Sam Peckinpah
    GUIÓN Walon Green & Sam Peckinpah
    MÚSICA Jerry Fielding
    FOTOGRAFÍA Lucien Ballard
    REPART OWilliam Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Alfonso Arau, L.Q. Jones
    PRODUCTORA Warner Bros. Pictures y filmada en Durango Mexico
    PREMIOS1969: 5 nominaciones al Oscar: Mejor guión original, banda sonora (Drama)

    TÍTULO ORIGINALC’era una volta il west (Once Upon a Time in the West)
    165 min.
    PAÍS Durango Mexico y España, USA.Italia
    DIRECTOR Sergio Leone
    GUIÓN Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci
    MÚSICA Ennio Morricone
    FOTOGRAFÍATonino Delli Colli
    REPARTO Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Frank Wolff, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn
    PRODUCTORA Paramount Pictures
    GÉNERO Western | Spaghetti Western

    Director: David Slade
    Writers: Melissa Rosenberg (screenplay), Stephenie Meye
    Release Date: 30 June 2010 (USA FILMADA EN DURANGO MEXICO Y CANADA Budget: $65,000,000 (estimated)
    Opening Weekend: $83,637,242 (USA) (4 July 2010) (4468 Screens)
    Gross: $300,523,113 (USA) (17 October 2010)
    Runtime: USA: 124 min
    Production Co: Summit Entertainmen

    Dragonball: Evolution
    Director: James Wong
    Writers: Ben Ramsey (screenplay), Akira Toriyama (novel)
    Release Date: 10 April 2009 (USA)
    Budget: $45,000,000 (estimated)
    Opening Weekend: $4,756,488 (USA) (12 April 2009) (2181 Screens)
    Gross: $9,362,785 (USA) (4 June 2009
    Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, World Film Magic, Dune Entertainment,,Star Oversea

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
    Director: John Huston
    Writers: John Huston (screenplay), B. Traven (novel)
    Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
    Release Date: 24 January 1948 (USA
    Country: USA
    Release Date: 24 January 1948 (USA)
    Also Known As: Treasure of Sierra Madre
    Filming Locations:Durango Mexico, Santiago Papasquiaro Dgo,Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico

  9. JohnnyFox Says:

    Wasn’t Lupe Soto the one who choked on her own vomit and died on the toilet ?

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