The Ultimate Culture Guide 2009: E

Epic Theater

Long before Ben-Hur became a Hollywood classic starring Charlton Heston, it was a play, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The original stage version opened in 1899 and was a huge hit. A cast of 200 and several horses (on treadmills) brought ancient Rome to such exciting life that a production toured until at least 1916, before it was eventually killed off by silent films.

This year, as William Wyler’s 1959 movie celebrates its 50th anniversary, a new and improved 360-degree staging of Ben-Hur is slated to debut at London’s O2 arena, September 15 to 19, before setting off on a three-year international tour.

The creators’ credits, fittingly, include Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as the Broadway Boy from Oz. Mark Fisher, the stage designer for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is doing the sets for the spectacle, which features some 400 actors and 100 animals—from horses and donkeys to doves and birds of prey—not to mention gladiatorial combat and a great sea battle between Roman and pirate galleys. And how often do you get to see a chariot race with five authentic quadrigae?