Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 28 November 2015

Ben Hur

Tricycle Theatre ⋄ 19th November 2015 - 9th January 2016

Chariots of plywood.

Tim Bano

1. His first name isn’t Ben, it’s Judah.

2. Like Moby-Dick, there’s a hyphen between ‘Ben‘ and ‘Hur‘ that often gets forgotten about.

3. It’s set in Ancient Rome, but not based on a classical text – it was actually written as a novel in 1880 by General Lew Wallace and its full title is BenHur: A Tale of the Christ.

lew wallace

4. It was turned into a stage play in 1899, and by 1921 over twenty million people had seen it across the world.

5. The famous film version is the 1959 one with Charlton Heston that runs for 4 hours, but the better film is the silent 1925 version (BenHur hipster right here).

6. In 1987 Carl Davis wrote a new score for the silent film (because it was silent) and it’s awesome.

7. Because special effects hadn’t been invented, the naval battle in the 1925 film is actually a naval battle – they built a full-sized galley, it caught on fire, people clobbered each other with oars. Pretty stunning.


8. The most iconic image associated with BenHur is the chariot race. It’s the most important part of any version of the story – hence the 2002 Playstation racing game Ben Hur: Blood of Braves, the BenHur board game and the horse-heavy version staged at the O2 in 2009.

blood of braves game


What is completely fascinating about Patrick Barlow’s BenHur is what’s always been fascinating about it: the impossible, yet slavish adherence to a notional original.

Conceited actor Daniel Vale is trying to put on a production with four actors and no budget. Of course, that means quick (but not quick enough) costume changes, dodgy sets and backstage drama bleeding into events onstage.

Every few years since 1880 BenHur has been remade in one medium or another, and every time it is attempting to be the greatest use of the medium the world has ever seen. With all those versions come a huge weight of expectation on audiences who absorb all the familiar tropes associated with the name BenHur.

ben hur poster

The 1880 novel included a number of tropes that Wallace thought readers would expect of a story set in ancient Rome: hence the chariot race, the decision to set the story alongside the life of Christ to give it some kind of historical basis. By the time this was made into a stage play, there was a push to make theatre more and more spectacular, more and more epic – so there were live horses, huge ships and the kind of scale that would drag audiences to see it.

So the 1925 silent film had to include all the elements that had made the stage version so great, but exploiting the opportunity for grandeur and visual trickery that film allows. By this point, the film is inheriting a line of tradition and series of reputations from a) a mythical ancient past and the expectations audiences have in the representation of that past (togas, sandals, chariots), b) a once popular novel, c) one of the biggest theatrical events of all time. And then, at the height of the classical epic, the 1959 film inherits all those traditions, as well as the traditions of other classical epic films, to become one of Hollywood’s first great blockbusters.

Recognisability is key. The processes of recognition depends on a notional original (whatever that is – a general impression of Ancient Rome or a particular reading of the Ben-Hurs that have come before) which evolves and constantly changes over time. There is never any single source. And this is evidently true of Patrick Barlow’s panto-ish version, which is framed as the story of a hapless and conceited actor – Daniel Vale – trying to mount this epic show with severely limited resources, then within Vale’s performance the story is framed by General Lew Wallace reading from his book. The Barlow BenHur visually draws much more heavily from the famous film than from the book, despite giving the book such prominence in the show. There is no original source anymore.

What motivates Vale to stage BenHur is the very sense of epicness that is associated with the story. That is derived from a) the general sense of epicness we associate with ancient Rome, b) the legends of that original stage production that played such an important part in theatre history, and c) the film that was the height of Hollywood epic. Of course, a great deal of the comedy within the show comes from the futility of one arrogant man trying to put on an impossible production. There’s a comic mismatch between ambition and execution.

You know what film can do? Massive crowd scenes, thousands of live animals, sweeping landscapes, fully mounted naval battles, real life chariot races, costume, celebrity, everything bigger and better than anything seen before. You know what The Daniel Vale company can do? None of that. Parody as an art form is about pointing out and then comically distorting familiar images: the chariots are plastic horses stuck to lawnmowers, the towering plumage in Massala’s helmet gets stuck in the door as he leaves.

Barlow’s writing is wordplay heavy, and he directs the slapstick scenes well, but the show gets a little too carried away with its jokes. Dances last a bit too long, jokes recur that weren’t funny the first time. But a lot of it is hysterically daft, drawing on the great British tradition of ineptness combined with self-importance that’s been the staple of comedy from Dad’s Army to Fawlty Towers, toThe Office and beyond.

The most surprising thing about this show is how similar it is to Trevor Nunn’s recent Wars of the Roses marathon at the Rose Theatre in Kingston: there are the same puffed up chests and over-enunciation, the same silly costumes and attempt at grandeur. Except this is a very deliberate parody, Nunn’s show wasn’t.

And you know what? There’s a new BenHur film coming out next year. The line of tradition just goes on and on, moving further away from the notional original, the essence of ‘BenHur‘ replicated and rewritten as it goes.


Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Ben Hur Show Info

Directed by Patrick Barlow



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