So last night we took the special train to Olympic Park for the biggest theatrical event ever staged in Australia, the only event that makes the phrase bigger than Ben Hur pointless, Ben Hur. It was a fun night and I'm glad I went. I even managed to write most of the below review during the show without missing a single thing. (You'll see why shortly).
First let me get one thing off my chest: I'm sorry Australia, but "she'll be right mate" just doesn't cut it when you're playing a roman legionary. We expect precision and synchronization. Yes, I get that it's hard in such a large stadium, and often you're running not marching so that you can cover the space quickly enough, but you simply must rehearse it over and over until you get it right. From the stands we can see if you're spaced out at weird intervals and your heads are facing different directions, when you're supposedly in an orderly formation. Not good enough. It's not that hard to get something like that right, it's all about practice and caring about it.
The advantage of being in a stadium rather than a theatre is that it's noisy and fun. So we could freely mock some of the sillier or poorly executed aspects of the performance. Unfortunately a stadium is big. Very big. So there were looooooong waits while they walked out across the stadium and started speaking. The whole production was very disjointed. Russell Crowe would deliver a monotonous introduction to the scene, completely destroying any sense of excitement or anticipation with his toneless presentation. Then we'd wait while the performers made their way out across the stadium while music played. By the time they started to speak we'd have practically forgotten what was happening. Then they'd play a scene, often stopping for more bland narration in the middle, before sllooowwwlllly exiting and then the whole rotation would begin again.
Messala's script apparently had a full-stop after each word, because every line was over-enunciated and came out as a disjointed sentence. If that wasn't amusing enough, he accompanied this dialogue with very over the top hand gestures - I'm sorry, I should say arm gestures - to the point that he appeared to be a comical robot. I'm fairly certain the show is pre-recorded and lip synched, although Shane thought it wasn't and was just a delay. But that would explain to me how they got so carried away with over acting along to the soundtrack. Nobody else stood out particularly as being any good. They just weren't as obviously bad.
The chariot race was clearly the highlight. Each chariot was driven by four horses, and they looked spectacular. Shane pointed out the blocks on Ben Hur's chariot, and explained that these would drop to make the chariot jump - a key scene in the movie, and one we'd seen previewed in the "making of". Sadly, when the blocks came out it didn't work and there wasn't even a lame bunny hop. That was a major disappointment. One thing they did get very right was the bad guy's chariot falling apart. Messala was dragged around the stadium behind his horses so effectively that many of us did start to wonder if it was a genuine accident, not a carefully performed stunt. It looked painful!
We took off at the end as they processed out for the cast presentation and legged it to the station. It just wasn't good enough that we were willing to wait behind 10,000 people to catch a train. I'm very comfortable with that decision, as we caught a train quickly and were home within the hour.
The horses did a splendid job.
The atmosphere! The crowd was great fun and I chatted to a lot of people before the show.
The fighting was fun. The different sides of the stadium had been given different coloured scarfs to wave - red or yellow - which matched the tunics worn by the gladiators. We had to cheer for our colours and wave them on. It was quite spectacular seeing a massive wall of colour cheering and screaming. Like a rugby game basically! And the gladiators would rip each other's tunics off - some of them had nice abs, yay! But yeah, not exactly high class theatre.
The long, boring periods of nothing during which we forgot what was happening.
What: Ben Hur
Where: ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park