I saw the posters for Ben Hur Live a few months ago and became unreasonably excited at the thought of a live chariot race. I didn’t realise I’d voiced this excitement but I must have done, because on my birthday I was presented with a pair of tickets, and two weeks ago we took ourselves off to what we now have to call the O2 for what promised to be, at the very least, a spectacle.
Well, it was super. For reasons which remain unclear to me it’s performed entirely in Latin and Aramaic, with – of course! – a besuited Stewart Copeland of The Police wandering among the loincloth-clad cast narrating the action for us. This alone is enough to make it a winner in my book, frankly. Add a couple of brilliantly executed set pieces (a pitched battle at sea and a – SPOILER – crucifixion) and there’s enough here to make it worth the price of entry. The music (also by Stewart Copeland, less surprisingly), the introduction (by director Franz Abraham who, brilliantly, sounds exactly like Werner Herzog) and the clever tricks they play with a smallish amount of very versatile scenery, are other points in its favour.
Small points against are some scenes which drag slightly, a mildly racist depiction of an Arab horse breeder and the lingering suspicion that the animals involved in the production may not be enjoying it quite as much as the audience does. I can’t decide whether getting horses to perform a chariot race at the O2 is better, worse or just different from getting them to race at Ascot. But there’s a long tradition of show animals, and I’m not going to start pontificating in an uninformed way about them.
This was a five-day premiere prior to a European tour, during which the team behind the show hope to make back the £19m (£19m!) it cost to put on. It comes back to London in January, and whilst I won’t be rushing out for a ticket to see it again, I think it’s well worth seeing once. Sometimes, things are worth seeing just because they’re not like anything else.