Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Port Talbot's Wealth of Acting Greatness

Theatre History

Angela V John , Parthian Books , November 13, 2015

Angela V John is author of biographies of substance of women of historical significance. Her most recent, “Turning the Tide”, deserves to be read not least for its vivid account of the suffragette campaign in Wales. “The Actors’ Crucible”, a study of the extraordinary profusion of actors that has flowed from Port Talbot, is a change of direction, as well as a book of personal association. The opening line of her acknowledgements reads “this subject crept up on me and took me over”. A further thanks, unusually, is given to her publisher for the deviation, albeit temporary, from the book she was supposed to be submitting.

“The Actors’ Crucible” has a subtitle “Port Talbot and the Making of Burton, Hopkins, Sheen and All the Others.” Appropriately the idea for the book was prompted by a chance meeting with Michael Sheen. An appendix of six pages gives a list of the actors who run through her text and whom she has met and interviewed. The names are regulars on reviews on this site: Matthew Aubrey, Jordan Bernarde, Robert Blythe, Di Botcher, Darren Lawrence and Kyle Rees are just the beginning. The detail of Angela John’s research reveals, for example, that Robert Blythe was once a surveyor- “he was miserable”. Briton Ferry’s Little Theatre and a part in a farce “Dry Rot” changed everything.

Inevitably “the Actor’s Crucible” looks with some depth at the trio who found success, residency, even citizenship, far away from Port Talbot. But it also revisits lesser-known figures from theatre history. The first role played by Ronald Lewis was Bassanio in “the Merchant of Venice” at Bridgend Grammar School. His first professional role was in rep, at Worthing, in “An Ideal Husband”. He moved on to Eugene O’Neill, directed by Peter Hall, in London and a string of films. His first film reprised a role he had played on stage at Hammersmith’s Lyric. “The Square Ring” from Ealing Studios has an affecting performance by Lewis. The film, set in a boxing venue, had a small fraction of the budget that Hollywood gave to its boxing films of the 1950s “Champion” and “Body and Soul.” The film, and Lewis, stand up well in 2015. Its fate, not to be included in Time Out’s kilogram and a half weight compendium of film, is undeserved.

The quality of Ronald Lewis’ films on balance outshines that of Taibach’s most famous son. Richard Burton has been subject of many- too many- biographies. The most recent, a gaudy assemblage of press cuttings- was reviewed on this site in January 2012. Angela John’s thirty-six pages of the chapter “Becoming Burton” focus on the Taibach years with a detail beyond all the biographers.

There is an irony to an early performance. Richard Burton was one of seven members from a Youth Centre Drama Group to act in Glamorgan’s first Youth Eisteddfod. In June 1942 in Pontypridd he played a reformed convict in “the Bishop’s Candlesticks”, an adaptation of “Les Miserables” into a one-acter. Taibach won first prize. Burton’s voice, set to become one of the most celebrated of his age and inseparable from “Under Milk Wood”, had small opportunity to impress on this occasion. The production was all in mime.

Narration is the method of the historian, causation its motive. Angela John titles her last chapter “Is there something in the water?” Artistic talent may on rare occasion be spontaneous eruption. It happens in the visual arts but to act is to be part of an art of collaboration. The nourishing soil is vital. Angela John unpeels the vitality and variety of the cultural environment that embraced her subjects.

In 1937 the anniversary of the foundation of Margam Abbey invited a theatrical response. Philip Burton wrote and directed a performance for a cast of hundreds. That in turn prompted a radio version. Richard Burton’s own lifelong reading started in the town’s central library. Like the Davies-founded library of Ceredigion or the Tate libraries of London its foundation was outside government, a beneficiary of the Carnegie Trust. Pantomimes at the YMCA under Bryn Thomas and Marlene Evans were five-week sell-outs. The emphatic role played by West Glamorgan Youth Theatre is a constant through the second half of the book. The first play seen by the teenage Michael Sheen was the company’s “the Crucible”. His first role, in the 1982-83 season, was that of an ant in “the Insect Play.” He stayed with the company until the time for college- “Michael won places at eight drama schools.”

Angela John is a historian and the industrial history of Port Talbot is interwoven into the lives of her artists. The book has acquired an added poignancy with the latest crisis in the steel industry. Steel-making and performance are deftly melded- the book’s adroit editing is the work of Francesca Rhydderch. Margam’s furnaces were operating at half capacity throughout most of the 1920s. The mines in the lower Afan Valley went. The town did get its twenty million pound tidal harbour in 1970 and a new strip mill and concast plant in the 1980s. But in 2005 the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation termed Sandfields West as one of the most disadvantaged wards in Wales. The Plaza Cinema is boarded up. The library that fed Richard Burton is a library without librarians. Glan Afan school has lost its drama department.

Port Talbot has provided more than stars for cinema. Cinema myth-making has the twang of the cables of the first Severn Bridge as source for the sound of light-sabres. So too Port Talbot is supposed to have been inspiration for “Blade Runner.” If that is fancy Michael Sheen is quoted here to the effect that the beach gave Terry Gilliam the idea for “Brazil.”

One aspect reveals itself over “The Actors’ Crucible”. Angela John’s research has been considerable but quotations from authoritative theatre critics are occasional. The reason is that Wales is now mainly ignored by London and unable to afford a regular professional theatre critic of weight of its own. Dylan Moore and Gary Raymond are each cited once. Amy Stackhouse is quoted on Di Botcher at the New Theatre in a Frank Vickery production. From the description it reads as if the author was not present herself when Darren Lawrence summoned up the ghosts of Llewelyn Street. Were this book from Scotland it would be replete with engaged comment from Joyce Macmillan. If it were from England testimony from Nightingale or Coveney would be frequent. It is left to the estimable Lyn Gardner for the most memorable epitaph to “the Passion.” That Easter, of 2011, Port Talbot was “one of the happiest places on earth.”

This book appears in the same week that the Institute of Wales Affairs publishes a report on Wales’ media deficit. Angela John pays tribute to Chris Williams’ work on the Burton Diaries but it is telling that the task fell to a historian- of note- rather than to a theatre writer. One reason of course is the conversion of drama departments to performance studies with their other interests. But a national broadcaster with a bloke-ish embarrassment about culture is a bit of a mystery. They might well lend an ear to Matthew Aubrey quoted here: “It’s fascinating- for such a macho town, it’s alright to be an actor.” Thankfully, the critical deficit in Wales is more than made up by its throng of engaged, and engaging, historians; Angela John is one of them.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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