By Gillian Tunley.
Reading Rep staged an epic and powerful community production of Ben-Hur at The Hexagon last week, in a stage adaptation by the award winning playwright Hattie Naylor. It marked a spectacular opening to the Made in Reading season in the Reading Year of Culture. Over 70 local residents of all ages and backgrounds, playing characters encompassing all aspects of Roman society, joined forces with a small professional cast to thrill the audience with this timeless epic.
The opening scene portrays a lyrical calm by the water’s edge with the three Magii. Balthazar (the charismatic and compelling Chris Barritt) draws us into this story of bitter sibling rivally between the noble Judah Ben-Hur (Miles Yekinni) and the swaggeringly insolent Messala (Matt Lapinskas); as a loyal Roman citizen, he denounces his Jewish half-brother and condemns him to five gruelling years as a galley slave. His mother Miriam and sister Tirzah are taken prisoner.
We are suddenly energised by the vibrant Young Company pirates marauding noisily through the auditorium. A stormy and cleverly choreographed battle ensues, followed by the escape of Judah Ben-Hur in an eerily lit and atmospheric sequence.
He returns to seek revenge, and a romantic encounter with the beautiful Zina (the beguiling Rebecca Manwen) follows. On learning that his mother and sister are dead, he decides to enter the prestigious chariot race to defeat his brother Messala, in front of Pontius Pilate, the new Roman governor. He gains the trust of the feisty Muna, owner of the magnificent chariot racehorses and meets her playful and bejewelled daughter Isra.
Victory ensues after a thrillingly staged race, with excitement built to frenzy pitch by the Young and Adult Company crowd, along with a rousing commentary by the authoritative Ian Pirie. Messala is left mortally injured and admits that Miriam and Tirzah still live… as lepers. In an emotional final scene, they are bathed in a glorious and redeeming light and miraculously healed as Christ meets his crucifixion.
The director, Christie O’Carroll, the artistic director, Paul Stacey and the executive director, Niki Robinson should be congratulated, along with the creative crew and the entire cast, on a stunning community production whose profoundly moving themes of religious persecution and families being torn apart still resonate today.