Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

For Those Who Weren't There Television at Port Talbot

Television Arts Feature

Prospect/ BBC Wales , BBC1 , June-17-11
Television Arts Feature by Prospect/ BBC Wales For those who were not in Port Talbot this sun-drenched Easter producer-director Rupert Edwards’ second film, broadcast on BBC Wales only Sunday12th June, is a workmanlike, balanced, uplifting record of three days of performance and community participation.
“The Passion” was more than a success. It was an event. According to Siriol Jenkins, in her measured voice-over, by the time Sunday arrived “Newspapers around the world are printing pictures of this unique event. People have travelled here from all over the UK and abroad to witness the last day.” It will never be known for sure quite how many thousands were there. “Has it changed the shape of participatory performance?” wondered the Guardian.

There are no talking heads in “Passion on Port Talbot”. It is a wise editorial decision, one that fits the spirit and the intent of the project. Writer Owen Sheers and musical director Claire Ingleheart get in a few explanatory words. Producer Lucy Davies projects, in equal measure, calm in the face of the unexpected vast numbers and personal enthusiasm: “I'm thrilled. It's been amazing, an amazing couple of days.”

But, the drama aside, it is voices from Port Talbot which dominate, voices of all ages, all backgrounds. The language is direct, descriptive, heart-felt. Only one word- “realistic”- exceeds three syllables. The press may have sounded a tad hyperbolic with “On Aberavon seafront in Port Talbot on Sunday evening, there was a sense not just that the town of Port Talbot had been transformed by the experience...” But hear the voices. “I've never seen anything like it before. Really wonderful.” It’s very emotional, it's deeply emotional, people crying on the way down.” From a man in peaked cap and a gold tooth: “It brings a closeness...It's lovely and we need more of it.”

As for the drama Owen Sheers does light on that killer phrase “make it relevant.” But the story of sacrifice has a mythic power that pre-dates Christianity anyhow. The Father in other Passions is often a plain-speaking character. Here he speaks down to the Teacher from the top of a scaffolding tower.

One of the most haunting images is in any case derived from outside the Gospels. Port Talbot is the town in Britain most ravaged by motorway building. Dundee is bad but not on Port Talbot’s scale. Drifting, spectral figures in white and pastel emerge from the pillars beneath the motorway. Claims are sometimes made for site-specific theatre, that are overweening. In truth, each piece is as good as the imagination and the craft that drives it. But at its finest it generates images of a deep metaphorical power. These residents of the former Llewelyn Street, emblematic figures for the dispossessed everywhere, move some in the audience to tears.

Saturday Night brings a sell-out crowd to the Seaside Social Club. Word has leaked that the Manic Street Preachers are there. They and Paul Potts are familiar faces. Iwan Rheon plays a storm, but he is edited to twenty-five seconds. The project may have been driven by a star but in the breaking of the bread, or rather the sandwich, we see not the actor as star but the actor as actor. His speech is not more than a handful of sentences but it lasts a minute and forty seconds. The craft of the pause in Owen Sheers’ line “Today....we are one” has to be heard to be relished.

The number of people, hard-travelling and determined, who were witness to National Theatre of Wales first year in full can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Similarly, the numbers who saw the whole of “the Passion” are probably not many. It started with a dawn scene, says Siriol Jenkins, “an unadvertised and mystical sequence of events.” One speaker in the film says he cannot attend the crucifixion. It is too emotional. At the climax there is one way to tell visitor from resident. Michael Sheen’s “I remember” speech brings tears to the eyes of Port Talbot-ers.

God may have been absent, more or less, from the script. But the sun, the best weekend for months, certainly helped. Early on in the film Siriol Jenkins says that “the Passion” has “the blood of Port Talbot running through its veins.” At the beginning it sounds overly melodramatic as a metaphor. By Sunday sunset it is sounding right.

For all the comment about the event there is one that the National Theatre of Wales should treasure most dearly. “I'm prepared to bet”, wrote Lyn Gardner “that over the last three days, Port Talbot was one of the happiest places on Earth.” I wouldn’t imagine there are many who would take up her bet.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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