An epic tale

Staging theatrical versions of famous films may be nothing new, but Ben-Hur, with its live 16-horse chariot race, is something special. Nick Smurthwaite talks to the designer of the show

Even after half a century, the punishing chariot-race sequence in the 1959 film Ben-Hur still leaves you wide-eyed and breathless. Bearing in mind computer trickery was still a couple of decades away, how on earth did they make it all look so realistic and dangerous?

This was one of questions Mark Fisher pondered after he was hired to design a live-action version of the historical epic for London venue The O2 arena and various other European destinations.

Fisher, best known as the designer of large-scale rock concerts – this year’s spectacular Tina Turner and AC/DC tours were both his work – realised that he would need to find a different visual, dramatic language from the one used in the film if he wasn’t going to bore the audience. ‘If you were to ask the man in the street what Ben-Hur is about, they’d probably say, “a chariot race”, but that takes up less than 15 minutes of screen time. The story is actually a lot more ambitious than that,’ Fisher explains. ‘Ben-Hur’s odyssey runs parallel to the life of Christ, and an arena seating 18 000 people probably isn’t the best place to tell a story that complex.’

Ben-Hur
Scene from the live-action chariot race in the stage production of Ben-Hur

Since the settings include the city, the market place, the desert, and the Mediterranean sea, where the hero becomes a galley slave, not to mention the arena where the famous chariot race takes place, Fisher had to find a way of switching from the intimate to the epic with the blink of an eye.

‘Can you stage a conversation between two people in the middle of a vast arena? My answer to that is “yes”, because, in a way, that’s something I’m dealing with all the time in my concert designs,’ says Fisher. ‘Obviously, we didn’t want endless scenes of two people waving their arms at each other in the distance, so it was necessary to simplify the story without losing the plot.’

Working with the rest of the creative team, Fisher believes he has come up with a workable modus operandi.

‘It is an unashamedly modern show in terms of the technology, and we don’t insult the audience’s intelligence by pretending thegalleys are real,’ he says. ‘They are wheeled vehicles moving on a sand base. I took the decision we wouldn’t hide the wheels or conceal the fact that the slaves are running to keep them moving along, rather than rowing. I think a 21st-century audience is sophisticated enough to accept that conceit.’

What did Fisher think when the idea was put to him by German producer Franz Abraham? ‘I thought it had immense potential,’ he says. ‘It’s always exciting to be asked to work on something that is already well known in the public consciousness. From the beginning, Franz said he knew how we were going to race horses in the arena, which seemed like the first obvious hurdle cleared.’

Sixteen horses are being specially trained for the job in France. Between them, they will lead four chariots round the track at almost 50km/h. The arena itself is filled with a 25cm-thick layer of ‘special sand’, as Fisher calls it, bonded with resin to stop it sending up clouds of dust.

As well as preventing the chariots from skidding all over the place, the sand should protect the horses’ hooves.

The show still has a long way to go before its September premiere, but Fisher is confident it will be all right on the night. ‘I hope it will be spectacular, but it is basically a tight little arena show and, believe me, compared to the U2 world tour I’m working on now, it’s a vicar’s tea party,’ he says.

Ben-Hur Live opens at The O2 on 15 September, before going on a European tour

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