Ben Hur epic brought to life in arena spectacular

17th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The mammoth-scale production, entitled "Ben Hur Live," will see gladiator duels, pirate ship attacks and real high-speed chariot races tearing around the arenas of Europe before heading worldwide.

London -- The epic tale of Ben Hur is being revived with thundering horses, blazing lights, dramatic music and a huge cast in an arena spectacular which gets its world premiere in London on Thursday.

The mammoth-scale production, entitled Ben Hur Live, will see gladiator duels, pirate ship attacks and real high-speed chariot races tearing around the arenas of Europe before heading worldwide.

"It's a mixture of the power of a rock concert, the speed of a musical, the magic of a great movie and the passion of a Greek tragedy," producer Franz Abraham told AFP.

The production is theatre on a 2,500 square-metre stage, matching the epic scope of the 1959 classic film Ben-Hur, which starred Charlton Heston and won a record 11 Oscars.

Ben Hur Live promises to "dazzle its audience with a breathtaking combination of light, sound, water, wind and pyrotechnic effects in a show performed in the round, like an ancient arena."

The show is an adaptation of US author Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the story of first-century Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur woven around the times of Jesus Christ.

Using 150 actors, 46 horses, five falcons, two vultures, two eagles and 120 doves, the show is in the Latin and Aramaic languages of the time, with narration over the top.

It sees the actors haul the giant scenery around the arena floor to construct towns, boats, docks and villages, while dry ice makes for the sea and lighting picks out the focus of a scene.

"It's totally different to the things I've done before," said Sebastian Thurn, 30, who plays Ben-Hur.

"I'm a stage actor but here when you're playing in 360 degrees it's totally different," the German told AFP.

"You're so close to it. You can see the pirates, you can smell it, you can see the flames, you can smell the horses and feel them trampling around.

"The training was hard. Language training, riding, fighting, dancing, but it was fun," he added.

The music score is by Stewart Copeland, the drummer for rock band The Police. He will narrate the London shows live.

"I've played arenas, scored films and written grand opera, but not all in one place," the 57-year-old told AFP.

The American started work on the score just eight months ago, gradually replacing the computer-generated sounds on his template with real instruments, then chopping down or extending passages when the music was matched with the real arena floor action.

Besides the soundtrack, Copeland is also fascinated with the minutiae of staging the epic.

"The dirt is high-tech dirt," he said.

"There's different kinds of dirt: horse-racing dirt, chariot dirt. This has to be soft enough for the horses' hooves but not too soft because they have to drag all this scenery across it.

"We'll be ready to rock on Thursday. I'm very confident. It's a really cool show.

"The Gladiators steal the show for me, they look angry and really go at it," he added.

It has taken Abraham 15 years to bring his vast concept to fruition.

"It's by far the biggest production there's ever been in an arena this size," the German said.

"It's wonderful for kids, but at the same time the demanding professor of literature will find his joy to observe it.

"The experiment will not fail."

Following five performances over four days in London, the one hour, 45-minute show moves to Germany, playing Hamburg, Brunswick, Stuttgart and Munich.

The spectacular then goes to Milan, Zurich, Lisbon, Gelsenkirchen, Vienna, Budapest, Paris and Barcelona before reaching Madrid on New Year's Day.

There are plans to take the show to Australia, North America and further cities in Europe.

Prices for the London performances range from 35 to 115 pounds (58-191 dollars, 40-131 euros).

Robin Millard/AFP/Expatica

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