fri 19/07/2024

The Passion of Port Talbot, NTW/WildWorks | reviews, news & interviews

The Passion of Port Talbot, NTW/WildWorks

The Passion of Port Talbot, NTW/WildWorks

Michael Sheen's three-day street epic is a transcendental triumph

The Passion of Michael Sheen: His home town of Port Talbot is resurrected Geraint Lewis

To begin at the end, this was an astonishing creation, a piece of street theatre of transcendental power which no one who was there at the death last night could or will ever forget. Those witnesses included what felt like the whole population of Port Talbot who filled the streets in their many thousands - 5000?

Double it and then some - to witness one of their own drag a cross for two gruelling miles from the town centre to a traffic island on the sea shore, there to be crucified, there to achieve a genuine miracle: the resurrection of a condemned town. After this breathtaking act of theatrical magic, Michael Sheen can book himself in for local sanctification.

Nowhere in these isles can have seen anything like The Passion of Port Talbot in many a long year. In November 2009, when theartsdesk gave a comprehensive rundown of National Theatre Wales’s inaugural season of work, it was announced that the year would close with a 13th production in which Sheen would revive an old Port Talbot tradition, the passion play which used to be put on over Easter at nearby Margam Park. No one could have envisaged that 13 would turn out to be quite such a lucky number. There was not a drop or a spit, nor even a cloud to dampen or darken three days and nights of a promenade production which recast an entire town in an extremely sunny light.

The_Passion_0688Come rain or shine, that was always the idea. Sheen (pictured right, photograph by Rich Hardcastle) has passionately advocated the merits of his home town while others have doubted. Even within a small country which itself sometimes feels marginalised, Port Talbot has always looked somehow shunned. From the motorway which flies over, the only things visible are the dockyard cranes and steelworks’ smokestacks belching fire and brimstone. As someone said, this would be the perfect place for a second coming.

Not that the play made any such explicit references to the greatest story ever told. Levitating skilfully between pantomime and parable, Owen Sheers’s three-day play was set instead in a dystopian near future in a town toiling under the exploitative grip of commercial developers, which has lost a sense of what it is thanks to that motorway which passes literally over.

From this town a local teacher had disappeared 40 days previously. An interview with his worried mother soon cropped up on YouTube. Footage of a bedraggled wanderer, captured on video or CCTV, went viral. Then on the morning of Good Friday he reappeared on the long white strand at Aberavon, to be greeted by a dune dweller called the Stranger (Nigel Barrett) and treated to a marine cleansing (pictured below, photograph by Ian Kingsnorth).


His memory wiped, the Teacher became an empty vessel to be filled with stories of the town and its people. “Tell me your story” was the refrain of this story. The portrait which emerged was of a town full of colourful individuals whose past was even now being erased by malign outside forces, a company called ICU headed by a nameless Company Man (Hywel Simons) who later that evening to a chorus of jeers announced a second flyover to pass over the town. On Saturday the Teacher emerged from the crowd in time to dissuade a suicide bomber called Barry (Jordan Bernarde) from violent insurrection, and thus became the focus for peaceful resistance.

The_Passion_16682By Saturday evening, the Teacher had gathered about him a group of followers and headed to the Seaside Social and Labour Club for the last night of revelry before impending closure. As they sat at tables, shared sandwiches and toasted their new friendship – their oneness – with lager, an MC teed up entertainers who turned out to include Britain’s Got Talent’s popular tenor Paul Potts and the so-called house band, the Manic Street Preachers singing new, dramatically apposite words to iconic tunes. That no one was to be spared participation in this drama was freshly underlined when the Manics were manhandled by police cadets in berets and thrown out (pictured above, photograph by Rich Hardcastle). They couldn't quite suppress a guffaw or two.


The production was full of beautifully accurate tableaux familiar from the Renaissance masters – the Last Supper (pictured below, photograph by Rich Hardcastle), disciples sleeping through the Agony in the Garden. But with religion being swept under the carpet even as the story clung faithfully to the iconography of the Gospels, at times you wondered whether The Passion of Port Talbot risked making a mockery of itself. Why were they ripping those sandwiches in half at the Supper if not to evoke the Eucharist? How were they going to get a partisan crowd, playing their part to the hilt, to condemn a local hero to execution? (Simple: rather than ask everyone to choose, ask a willing young girl instead). The actor playing the Father as some kind of celestial roofer at the Garden of Gethsemane (David Davies) didn’t help matters by forgetting his lines at the moment the play worked to conjure up its own lay justification for the supreme sacrifice.


But a bit of roughness round the edges was to be expected, even celebrated. Sheers’s task was to offer easy narrative sight lines for those joining at any time while also delivering a story of symbolic power. Now and then it veered right off the known path, spiriting up a highly apocryphal long lost daughter for the Teacher. Meanwhile, in the interests of directness, the villains of the piece were drawn a little too gauchely. But as the Trial on Sunday afternoon made way for the Procession, the strands of this hugely ambitious project started to take on a kind of unstoppable tidal power.

The town – the buildings, the squares, the glowering mountains – played its part perfectly, none more than the Aberafan shopping centre, beautifully shrouded in white polythene, where the Teacher’s mother (Di Botcher in a blue anorak) tended to his wounds while a celestial choir sang in the gallery. The townspeople put in a performance too, morphing unselfconsciously into part of the drama, breaking into the Welsh hymn “Calon Lân” and even “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” on the road to Calvary, doing all those things that probably happened when the real saviour embarked along the stations of the cross - complained about the wait, over-imbibed, gawped (though maybe not tweeted and filmed on their phones).

Near the end of the snail-slow three-hour procession, as Sheen dragged his cross through streets lined with rock bands, the long column headed by a drum troupe and followed by a brass band, it became increasingly difficult to make out a distinction between performance and reality (not to mention irrelevant). The only chink came as he rounded the corner onto the sea front and slipped into a house for a loo stop. (Photo below by Geraint Lewis)


Darkness had long since descended as the Teacher, to the mournful sound of a brass band, was raised on the cross. And here, as in sudden silence his howls were amplified across a sea of people, arrived the moment of maximum drama. “I remember!” he screamed. “I remember!” And out came a litany of the things about Port Talbot that he did indeed remember: villages, streets, pubs, sweet shops, schoolfriends, clubs, mountains. With every freshly recognised name, cheers and even gales of laughter rose from the crowd. You didn't have to be a local to find this intensely moving.

Another hush descended and, in a final design coup, a thick wall of water behind the cross sprayed upwards to form a projection screen on which fleeting images of his past were flashed. The deposition was faithfully enacted, then the pietà before, in one last theatrical sleight-of-hand, Sheen disappeared from under the shroud to emerge above, risen again, like the town itself.

There will be those fulminating from pulpits in non-conformist chapels lining the road to Golgotha who see the whole show as a damnable blasphemy. The supreme irony, of course, is that while God the Father and God the Son were not wanted on this version of a familiar voyage, the almighty power of this story will surely send some back to the welcoming bosom of church and chapel. Meanwhile, anyone stricken to have missed this secular enactment can rest easy: the director Dave McKean was there with cameras galore, shooting the movie. There is also a trim novelised pamphlet by Sheers called The Gospel of Us, and a two-part behind-the-scenes documentary on BBC One Wales which will be available on iPlayer.

In the meantime, praise be to all involved: above all to Sheen, whose charisma got this thing off the ground and continued to radiate like a kind of halo in his still, mesmerising performance; to Bill Mitchell and the Cornish site-specific miracle-workers WildWorks, to the professional cast of 14 working in taxing conditions, to sound designer Mike Beer, lighting designer Paul Jarvis, and musical director Clair Ingleheart (who supplied a haunting ambient soundtrack); to the cast of thousands including choirs and bands, amateur acting, dance groups and ordinary people who thronged the streets in the three days’ traffic of the stage. Finally to National Theatre Wales. They announce their second season on 26 May. If it’s half as good as the first, that will indeed be good news.


amazing, just amazing. thanks for relaying that, Jasper. it sounds extraordinary and very moving when you think of the chunks of the UK wiped out by de-indstrialisation. Sheffield, Clydeside, even Nottingham - my home patch -could all stage `lamentations' for lost sights, sounds and communities. fantastic. and fantastic Mr Sheen.

Amazing - well written article so expertly describes the mood and experiences of the three days -I was home visiting my Mam, and my daughter and I just joined in with the crowd - remembering so much from a childhood growing up in and around Port Talbot - from watching the passion play at Margam ( sometimes in the pouring rain) , the opera, my uncles grave at St Mary's , learning to swim in the Lido , the docks, the 'new ' canolvan & the houses demolished for the motorway . Thank you for a wonderful weekend

I'm from Port Talbot and live in London, absolutely ashamed that I missed it - my dear friend was one of the beret clad policewomen - well done to everyone involved and to Michael Sheen and Owen Sheers etc - PT is back on the cultural map!!

The things that the Teacher was remembering were all things that gave now been destroyed- by the M4 or by modern developments. This made it even more poignant.

i was there watching him being crucified and it was an amazing performance by michael sheen and cant wait for it to come out on film and the documentary that will be on and i live in port talbot and i was amazed by how many people where crying during his performance because so many people were touched by it and even i thought it was very realistic by how much effort was put in to "The Passion Of Port Talbot" and how many people turned up there where so many i couldnt even put a figure on it because how many people were there to support and see the performance and i just got to say i was amazed. :)

a performance to be remembered and no doubt inspire others to get involved with acting art music everything..

I, like many I presume, who got on their bike and left Port Talbot in the 1980's, remember the deep despair of the town at that time. It's wretch from the old to the re-development of the new, was a painful re-birth, set against all the uncertainty of the future, of unemployment, poverty, social and politcal change. I am just a few years older than Micheal Sheen and empathise with the love and pride he obviously feels for the place of his birth. Watching the events unfold here in Denmark (I had to work through the Easter, but would have made the visit, like my sister did from Jersey with her family, the dispersed, the lost tribe of Port Talbot!) through the various media platforms, has filled me with admiration for all those involved, and it reminds me that home is where the heart is.

Thank you for this moving review Jasper. I am a 1960’s refugee from Port Talbot now living a few miles further east. Over the years I have thought myself alone in being upset by the brutal changes to the town centre, hills and dunes by the development of motorway, industry and soulless housing developments so feel totally at one with Michael Sheen the places chosen for performance and the people who participated in this event. I feel that the warmth of the people of Port Talbot and their instinctive talent for theatre is still bubbling with the spontaneous passion I remember and shared as a teenager.

I remember, I remember too Michael. I remember when our fine sweeping beach looking right across to the Mumbles, which would rival any beach in the world, if we had the weather, wasn’t marred with piles of oil from the steamers discharging their bowels as they left the deep sea harbour so we would only need to go for a dip to get a Hollywood tan. On a clear day we could glimpse the north Devon coast. There used to be a paddle steamer taking people across to . I don’t know about global warming but I’m sure the summers were longer and hotter in those days. People would travel down from the valleys with their picnics by train to the old Aberavon Beach Station. The sand would be carpeted with families enjoying the sunshine. I remember you could hardly put a pin between them. You would have to pick your way between the groups of people to get to the prom to buy an icecream. There weren’t many facilities then but the Jersey Beach Hotel stood like a beacon at the end of the beach near the old pier. iThe concrete jungle of the Sandfields Estate really was fields of sand. There was no sea wall, the dunes stretched from the beach to the Baglan moors at the foot of the three mountains surrounding the town, Margam Emroch and Dinas. I remember my dad taking for long walks over the dunes to show us the new houses they were building to house the steel workers. After his demob after the war he went to live in the Channel Islands with my mum who he had married when , training in Brighouse, Yorkshire where my mum had been evacuated when the Germans invaded Guernsey during the war. She was workinThey returned to live in Port Talbot so he could get good wages in the giant Steel Works. He worked there the rest of his working life on shifts until a ten ton coild took off his leg at the knee just before he was due to retire. IThis was not unusual, there were many accidents and fatalities in that place. Nearly everyone in the town worked there at one time, including myself. They trained me as a shorthand typist and I remember the new bypass being built at the end of the field behind the school and technical college where I trained. The workers would whistle at us playing hockey in our navy knickers. Before the motoreay we used to have to drive up the A48 toget to Cardiff and London. We were actually quite excited to have a fast track road to London. Little did we know they were going to trample the town centre. The town They gave him g in the Land Army. They married within 6 weeks before he was shipped out to war. Who is buried in St Mary’s churchyard featured in the film was one of the original trade unionists and the heros of Alexander Caudell, the author of Rape of the Fair Country, strode over the unblemished hills of Taibach (little houses). My dad told me he used to have to ride his bike all the way round Neath before they built the Briton Ferry road bridge to get to the Swansea music hall which he loved. . . .

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