'Mad genius' rides in to resurrect Ben Hur

Multimillion-pound 'opera for God' opens to awe, applause and protests
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The Independent Culture

It is an epic show beset by financial troubles and the scepticism of a great many nay-sayers, at one point it even seemed to producer Franz Abraham that it would never make it. But yesterday, Ben Hur Live's 46 horses, 20 lorries-full of sand and 140 doves thundered, rolled and flew into London for the first time.

The show, which Abraham described as "opera for God" and based on US Civil War General Lew Wallace's best-selling book, appeared at the O2 Arena as part of a tour expected to cost £19m. The air of anticipation which heralded its arrival was evidently too much for some viewers who spontaneously broke into a series of Mexican waves.

One man in the amphitheatre had more reason to be anxious than most: Abraham has reportedly invested vast sums of his own cash in the project which sees Roman galleys sailing around the O2. The performers, as is to be expected of a multi-million-pound production, played their parts perfectly. The Romans were ruthless and menacing, the Jews proud in their destitution and the dancers overly enthusiastic in their theatrics.

The audience quickly settled into a pattern of awe and applause. All except one punter, who had the dubious honour of clapping at the wrong time and found himself completely alone in his loud appreciation at the entrance of the two main characters on horseback. Like the guy at a party who shouts just as the music stops, he fell very quickly into embarrassed silence.

Had he timed his intervention better, he would have been in much better company in applauding the show's first great scene – the two Roman galleys, on one of which our hero (that's Ben Hur, not Clappy Joe) would serve first as a slave, then as a warrior. The audience erupted as the scene came to a close.

Until now, the tale of Judah Ben Hur, a Jewish prince who is forced into slavery aboard a Roman galley before training as a charioteer, is most commonly linked with images of Charlton Heston. Director of the stage production, Philip William McKinley, admitted that "most producers would never begin to try this". "Franz is a mad genius attempting the equivalent of climbing Everest naked," choreographer Liam Steel said. "The man is not normal in a very positive way."

However, not everyone is so enamoured with the show's grandeur. A group of protesters from the animal rights group PETA, held a vigil outside the Arena and called for the use of live animals to be stopped. "We are here to try to encourage the public to take a look at the animals and try to experience the show from their point of view," said a spokesman.

"It is disappointing to see that Ben Hur is using live animals. It is worth remembering that several horses died during the making of the 1959 film. It is something which belongs in the past."

Abraham, who said that the first film he ever saw in a cinema was Ben Hur, said his passion for this project was linked to his fascination with motor-racing. That, he said, developed after his father, a sometime racing-driver, was killed in a crash.

Abraham, who was at the track-side when his father died, said: "Psychologically, everything that has come after that is a search for replacement."

Prior to the show's opening, he reportedly asked a Rabbi, an Anglican priest, a Russian Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest to consecrate the Arena. The 45-year-old impresario may have been much more comfortable in the knowledge that Hollywood version raked in enough money to save its studio, MGM, from financial ruin.