Ben Hur, O2 Arena, London
Judgement Day, Almeida, London
Separate Tables, Festival Theatre, Chichester
It took ages to get to the chariot race, then Hur got left behind. Elsewhere, two revivals restored faith in drama and humanity
Sunday 20 September 2009
Place your bets. Is Ben Hur Live going be a storming spectacular?
This is the epic Judeo-Roman saga – as immortalised by Hollywood and Charlton Heston – now recreated as a "monutainment experience". It offers the mighty sea battle, plus the score-settling chariot race between the oppressed titular hero and Messala, his buddy-turned-imperial enemy. There are additional gladiatorial dust-ups too (drawing on Lew Wallace's original 1880 novel).
Thursday's world premiere transformed the vast O2 arena into a sand-strewn hippodrome and the show returns, from continental touring, for a second galloping visit in January. But, oh, what a massive drag this extravaganza proves to be: endless trundling without cinematic edits.
To give the design team their due (Mark Fisher, Ray Winkler and Ann Hould-Ward), the Middle Eastern costumes start off looking authentically beautiful, before we shift to a tedious orgiastic Rome – all gold bikinis. Initially, I also enjoyed the giant skeletal galleys, pushed around on rubber wheels rather than rowed. Marauding pirates swing from dune buggies up on to the rigging.
Too soon, though, the vessels become lumbering, having to fold down their masts, like ships that can't pass in the night. And it's an age before we get to the chariots. The steeds in the climactic race are gorgeous pedigree creatures with wind-swept manes, but this'll teach them never to act with humans. While one stuntman did a stunning lap, surfing on his breastplate when his chariot crashed, another was to be seen patently sabotaging his own axle, and a third failed to abort at all on press night – bewilderingly pipping Hur, who is clearly supposed to win, to the post.
The acting and the amplification throughout is dire. As the narrator, Stewart Copeland (formerly of The Police) risibly lopes around in a designer suit amid galumphing centurions. His commentary is preposterously portentous, in the style of a blockbuster trailer, while the protagonists mutter in Latin, drowned out by Copeland's score of blaring trumpets.
Simply rewatching the MGM movie on DVD is more thought-provoking, with its occupying American/Roman army boasting of Western civilised values while jailing suspected trouble-makers without trial.
While Hur is finally converted to peacemaking by Christ, there is no happy ending in Judgment Day, a gripping drama by Odon von Horvath which is, unbelievably, little known in Britain. Newly translated by Christopher Hampton and staged by James Macdonald, this is a darkening portrait of a 1930s Germanic small town and, more particularly, of its station master – a seeming model citizen called Hudetz.
Judgment Day starts out as a satire of parochial lives. Sarah Woodward's frumpy Frau Leimgruber sits on the platform, next to a bovine farmer, battening on any titbits of gossip with growls of pleasure, like a terrier mauling a bone. Meanwhile Joseph Millson's uniformed Hudetz keeps himself to himself. Quietly shy, he pops in and out of his office, switching the signals. He's always lived by the rules until, finding himself alone with the innkeeper's daughter (Laura Donnelly's sprightly Anna), he's suddenly kissed and forgets the signals, with fatal repercussions.
What's fascinating is the moral messiness of the recriminations and exculpations that ensue. Hudetz swears he's blameless. Anna perjures herself in his defence. The liars are exonerated by the biased community, the prosecuting evidence judged pernicious. Yet the menacing fear intensifies that the guilty truth will out, and Hudetz and Anna will be hunted down in the woods, either by a lynch mob or by their own internalised furies.
Designer Miriam Buether's slow-turning set, surrounded by a gloomy palisade, is ingeniously fluid and claustrophobic, and the repressed tenderness of Millson's Hudetz is unnervingly combined with a lethal iciness.
In Separate Tables, originally penned by Terence Rattigan in 1954, a superficially genteel Bournemouth guesthouse turns into a kangaroo court. In Philip Franks' commendable revival, the imperious busybody Mrs Railton-Bell (Stephanie Cole) decrees that one fellow long-term resident, the Major (Iain Glen), must be kicked out.
She has just discovered that the moustachioed, seemingly pukka Glen is a moral degenerate. He's been booked for sexual harassment. She presumes wrongly, however, that all the other guests will agree with her peremptory verdict.
After John Osborne's Look Back in Anger famously revolutionised British theatre in 1956, Rattigan's plays were critically dismissed as old-school, safe fare for stuffy audiences. But what's startling about Franks' production is that it airs the alternative script which Rattigan wanted performed when his play transferred to Broadway in 1956, but which was suppressed.
In the well-known version, the Major is heterosexual. Here, though, Glen is a closet gay (as was Rattigan). Forced to confess that he has been propositioning young men on the esplanade, he dreads the starched bigotry of the Railton-Bell brigade.
The final scene is remarkably moving. Encouraged by his salt-of-the-earth landlady (Deborah Findlay), Glen finds the courage to stay and takes his seat in the agonisingly hushed dining room. Then, one by one, Railton-Bell's commandeered allies break ranks, each exchanging a few words of small talk with the Major. Though it dare not speak its name too loud, this is a rallying cry for tolerance which restores your faith in humanity.
These days, maybe the old version – where the Major has molested women in a cinema – would present more of a moral challenge. But, still, this Chichester Festival staging makes you see Rattigan as a radical in his time.
'Ben Hur Live' (0871 230 7143) today; 'Judgment Day' (020-7359 4404) to 17 Oct; 'Separate Tables' (01243-781312) to 3 Oct
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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