Ben Hur


Amanda Diaz

Although it appeared that  cheap deals had managed to fill the majority of the thousands of seats that had remained unsold only the day before, there were still awkwardly empty patches at ANZ stadium on Friday night.

There was an air of mild anticipation that soured when the starting time was delayed by ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Richard Wilkins strolled into the arena with a few jocular quips before ‘The Making Of Ben Hur’ was played on giant screens. It almost felt like being transported back to primary school- when teachers attempted desperately to appease their restless audience while they figured out how to hell to make the VCR work.

Finally, the music swelled and the stadium was plunged into darkness, filled with the dulcet tones of Russell Crowe.

Ben Hur, Prince of Judea and Mesalla, son of a Roman prefect, are childhood friends. When they reunite as adults, Mesalla shares his plan for World Domination- which involves enslaving the already oppressed Judean people. Ben Hur declares their friendship to be over. One thing leads to another and before long, Ben Hur is a galley slave and his mother and sister are imprisoned. What follows is the eponymous character’s quest for revenge against his former bestie (or rather, REVENGE as he often proclaims).

Obviously, when a show is a Stadium Spectacular, something has to get lost in translation- in this instance, the story. Rather than working as a cohesive narrative, it seems more like the kind of audiovisual presentation children are subjected to on school excursions or a clunky computer game from the 90s: stilted, cheesy dialogue, simplified scenes and over-exaggerated gesturing.

This is understandable, an arena show is not about subtlety- nevertheless, it was hard to ignore the snickers that would ripple through the crowd at moments that were meant to be heart wrenchingly emotional.  Ben Hur is of the brand of Noble and Worthy hero that come across instead as painfully self righteous (REVENGE!).

In the original tale, his story in inextricably intertwined with that of the Messiah. Here, Jesus Christ drifts in and out of the story, accompanied by a soundtrack of Middle Eastern wailing- reciting parables in an unsettling American accent. He is the catalyst to a bewildering ending involving a thunderstorm, and the Roman army hugging and laughing with a valley’s worth of lepers.

Crowe’s pre-recorded narration is curiously detached, reading again more like an educational presentation than the voiceover for The Biggest Show of All Time. Ben Hur is at its strongest when it is interactive. The gladiator circus divides the audience into red and yellow team supporters (scraps of fabric of said colours were handed out prior to the performance).  Cheering on your gladiator involved waving your colour  in the air- the Roman equivalent of waving one’s mobile phone.

Most of the actors function as costumed stage crew, the assembling of the galley ship in particular is clever- its creation drew surprised cheers and applause.  It ended up the stand out, overshadowing the entertaining albeit clunky chariot race.

As the home to the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic games, AC/DC’s Black Ice tour and the recent NRL grand final, ANZ stadium has had its fair share of epic events. Setting a performance in an arena left the audience confused as to how to react. Do you shout like you’re at a football match, cheer like you’re attending a concert or show appreciation as if you’re at the theatre? The majority settled for half hearted clapping, and lukewarm applause is still lukewarm applause – whether the crowd is made up of 8 or 80,000.

Ben Hur plays again on October 23


2 Responses to “Ben Hur”

  1. Lauren October 23, 2010 at 4:19 am #

    I’m kind of glad I didn’t end up excepting a free ticket to this. Poor Ben Hur, all that rehearsing and stupid redirecting traffic that went on all over Olympic Park, and it doesn’t sound as though it was that spectacular.

  2. Mike October 23, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    Very disappointed, the script felt like it was written by the south park guys doing a terrance and phillip show, half expected a fart joke at any second

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