Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

What a Way to End the Year

At National Theatre

National Theatre of Wales & WildWorks- the Passion , Port Talbot , April-24-11
At National Theatre by National Theatre of Wales & WildWorks- the Passion “It was incredible, really.” More telephoto lenses, minders and corrallers are gathered in the Square in front of Port Talbot’s Civic Centre on Easter Sunday than will be seen at the rest of Wales’ theatrical year put together. But the words are those of a genuine, enthused Port Talbot-er, one of the six thousand who were on the Aberafon beach on Good Friday.

I wasn’t there and never will be. Nor was I witness to the Breaking of the Bread on Saturday. The Manic Street Preachers, Paul Potts and Weird Naked Indian played and sang. A film crew has been following the genesis of this production. But the documentary, when it comes, will be the flicker of the shadow in the cave. As is said “if you weren’t there, you weren’t there.”

“The Passion” lasts three days and comprises eight scenes or sequences. As a viewer present for just a fraction of it this is not a review, just a report.

Owen Sheers and Michael Sheen are collaborating on the film of his 2007 novel “Resistance”. That is a counter-factual history set in the Borders of 1944. This revival of the Margam Passion is also a re-imagined counter-version of the Gospels. “A riff” on the story is Michael Sheen’s word for it. This death, as example, occurs on the Third Day.

Two years in the preparation the thoughts behind it are illuminating. “I was in a chapel in Rome” says Sheen, “surrounded by pictures of Jesus with the old, the young, the dying and the sick I suddenly became overwhelmed by thinking, “At this very moment, in Port Talbot, there are people doing all this.” And it just clicked into place for me what this project could be. Instead of our Jesus figure being the one who has come to heal and teach, he’s come to listen to the people who are doing what the original figure did.”

“The Passion” has ten scenes or sequences. There are filmed sequences in-between. But the sizeable intervals of time, the gaps, are just as interesting. As in Barmouth last summer the gaps make the space for people to meet, to talk. Theatre is creating something outside the boundaries of its performance.

Opposite its station Port Talbot has a small circular piece of green. A group from Lliw Valley Women’s Aid is there, volunteers sitting on the grass. So are Barnardo’s, Cruse and many others. A small girl gives me chocolate eggs, another volunteer a frisbee. Easter is now a muted thing in a secular society, played out by a minority within church and chapel. It is if as this remaking of the “Passion” has created a new form for a shared Easter Sunday. In the entrails of the Coalition someone somewhere must believe that the Big Society is more than a slogan. Fancy it may be, but there was a smell of it in Port Talbot’s afternoon air.

If the “Passion” amends the Gospels to show a good man come among good women and men, might there a political current to be felt? I saw too little but I heard Jordan Bernarde’s Barry say to his inquisitor “Everything about us here is decided elsewhere.” Not so, no more, said Carwyn Jones on radio one hour before.

The pocket-size programme credits five hundred and twenty-one individuals and helping organisations. Bill Mitchell, artistic director of WildWorks, co-directs. Adele Thomas is project associate. Lucy Davies is producer. Mercedes Kemp is community director. There won’t be anything like “Passion” again this year and probably next; unless Port Talbot chooses to make it so.

In March 2010 National Theatre of Wales opened its year with an explicit reference to the other John McGrath, the playwright-polemicist who died in 2002. In his finest achievement he breathed radical new life into a traditional form, that of the Scots ceilidh. Something similar is to be felt here in the reinvigoration of Port Talbot’s “Passion.”

“A Good Night Out” was the title that McGrath gave to a series of six lectures delivered in Cambridge in 1979. Among the opening words to his audience were “You go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. If their work is good, and skilfully written, presented and acted, we come out feeling exhilarated: we are more alive for seeing it, more aware of the possibilities of the human race, more fully human ourselves.”

That was “the Passion” Easter Sunday 2011.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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