WHO NEEDS CHARLTON HESTON?
I have a weakness for schlock-historical movie epics, due to a regular childhood treat when I was at school in France and my Dad and I would sneak down the Rue de Bethune in Lille to find one: Quo Vadis, The Long Ships, The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra… Of course the emperor of them all was William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur – a Tale of the Christ”, based on a stonking great overblown 19c novel by the Civil War General Lew Wallace, in which a heroic Jewish boy Judah Ben-Hur triumphs over Roman imperial bullying. It is all set between the Nativity and the Ascension, with Jesus popping up at various points to inspire. It won eleven Academy awards, cost $ 15m dollars, employed 50,000 extras, 365 actors and 78 horses for the nine-minute chariot race. It makes today’s CGI epics look wussy. But apart from epics, another weakness I admit is for larksome, apparently hasty and low-budget performances like The Reduced Shakespeare Company.
So when Patrick Barlow – famed for The 39 Steps and the National Theatre of Brent – decided to do Ben Hur with four actors and a few props, framing it as a misguided megalomanic’s project with an emotionally fraught cast, I naturally threw myself at it.
It does not disappoint. Tim Carroll directs with brisk wit, and Michael Taylor’s designs ensure happy visual moments, all the way from the Magi’s stuffed camels awkwardly kneeling at Bethlehem as plywood angels are noisily cranked over the stable, to the stuffed galley-slaves, entangled toga-sleeves, overhasty quick-changes, lawnmower-powered chariot horses , collapsing pillars and spectacular Ascension. The text meanwhile mingles beautifully awkward backward-Latinate syntax and faux archaisms (as indeed does Lew Wallace’s book). And, as traditional in these performances, the internal disaffection of the cast provides an underplot.
John Hopkins plays the hero, Ben Jones hops in and out of being the villainous Messala and half a dozen others, Alix Dunmore plays (among other things) the two key women and is very funny too: but the greatest joy of it for me was the veteran: the comedically nimble Richard Durden, playing an elderly RSC retiree dragged back by Hopkins to play the elderly matriarch, a Roman admiral, various others, and the weary voice of sanity when the young cast members get their love-lives in a twist. The school parties around me at the matinee loved every minute, and so did I.
box office 020 7328 1000 to 9 Jan
Joyfully joint-produced with Fiery Angel and the Watermill