Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur; A Tale of Christ, which was made famous by the 1959 film version, Hattie Naylor’s current adaptation skilfully retains the key elements of the narrative, whilst softening the overtly Christian message, and allowing the debate raised by Balthazar at the beginning and end of the piece – what if Jesus Christ had been called a philosopher rather than a god? – to add context to the story. His argument was that there were dangers in religion, and how its followers can use it against others for their own purpose. He predicted a world dangerously divided, where man's inhumanity to man can be justified by differences in faith – his words resonating with an audience living in our own troubled times.
The childhood friendship of Judah Ben Hur and Messala in Judea is torn apart as they grow up in different worlds. Messala trains as a roman solider and returns to become governor of roman occupied Judea, whilst Judah rejects this path. As the result of a terrible accident, where loose masonry falls and kills roman procurator Gratus as he parades past the Ben Hur household, Messala exacts terrible vengeance by having all their servants slain; Judah’s mother and sister taken away to an uncertain fate, and Judah himself reduced to slavery on a roman galley ship. The story follows Judah Ben Hur’s return to freedom, adoption by roman tribune Quintis Arrius and rise to become a celebrated charioteer. It is on the race track that he comes face to face again with his arch enemy Messala.
With the luxury of an enormous cast, this production effectively reproduces the epic scale of the story, and creates some spectacular visual effects using every element of the ingeniously designed modular settings (by Karen McKeown and Hayley Grindle) and, at times, the entire auditorium becomes a performance space, in iconic ensemble moments. The show opens with the jewish travellers converging on Bethlehem for the great roman census, and not only is the stage full of migrating travellers, but all three tiers of the auditorium. The scale and the excitement of the chariot races are achieved through brilliantly conceived and choreographed movement on stage, together with sound and music from all around the theatre.
Director Lee Lyford and associate director Sita Calvert-Ennals have done an incredible job, working with such a large group, many of whom have had little or no previous theatrical experience. Where it has resulted in a variable mix of performance quality, the leads are exceptional. Matthew Hocken as Judah, and Martyn Jessop as Messala are first class, and are ably supported by Chris Greaves (Quintus), Louise Wright (Zina),Dot Barker (Amrah), Nic Rauh (Mirium) and Emer Heatley (Tiraz) amongst others, too many to mention.
But this piece really shines in the collective performances of the entire cast in many large-scale set pieces, only very occasionally seeming slightly over-directed. The traveller migration, the parades, the chariot races, the roman galley, and the intensely moving, and beautifully realised coming together for the crucifixion scene, all underscored with the sublime vocal talents of the 23 strong choir (with original music composed by Conor Mitchell and under the musical direction of Malcolm Newton.)
As well as being an impressive feet, bringing together such a large group of disparate people for a community project, they have created an exciting, and ground-breaking piece of theatre, which not only entertains on a mammoth scale - moulded beautifully to the environs of the Theatre Royal, and using the strengths of a hugely talented team of people - but also educates and informs.
This is everything great theatre should be, and shows the true value of the arts in our society and our communities. I sincerely hope this production encourages similar projects around the country.