Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

TV: Passion in Port Talbot: a Town Tells Its Story

Television Arts Feature

Prospect Cymru Wales , BBC1 & BBC I-Player , June-27-11
Television Arts Feature by Prospect Cymru Wales The purpose of National Theatre Wales’ triumphant Easter production was to give voice to the citizens of Port Talbot. The best feature of this first of two documentaries is the emphasis given to these authentic voices. When a former resident speaks of the demolition of Llewellyn Street- “it was a very sad day”- his eyebrows make the slightest upward flick of resignation. It is a tiny movement, but it says everything.

In the cemetery a group of players in thick cotton dressing gowns are being boiled red in the unusual spring sun. Ghost-like figures, they talk of the dead who have gone before them. Cor Serenata sings “Ain't No Grave”. The Solar Dance Group and West Glamorgan Youth Theatre perform. A group of bell-ringers plays a lovely melody. There is the roofer who is to be the inspiration for the character of God. I liked the citizen who had “taken on airlines, universities, kitchen manufacturers, anyone who's rude actually.” The vicar adds moral seriousness. One of the carpenters hopes touchingly to “make as comfortable a crucifix for Mr Sheen as possible.” A lone violinist plays on an empty quay.

Structurally, the hour of film is split almost exactly mid-way between the period of preparation, October to March, and the intense short few weeks of rehearsal. The editing of the film is pre-figured in the pre-programme announcement. “BBC Wales cameras were there” says the announcer “to witness a moving collaboration between the community of Port Talbot and the actor Michael Sheen.” Poor National Theatre of Wales is to get barely a credit. John McGrath, looking immensely relaxed, provides one of those moments of humour that hit all outdoor events. A man in a van drives up and offers to get rid of a load of metal. That, explains Artistic Director, is the set.

But he also says that a “big production meeting is going on with thirty people trying to work out how the hell we pull this off.” Theatre is a collaborative art. The editing gives Adele Thomas plenty of space but Bill Mitchell, a perpetual, amiable, bear-like presence, is given little to say. The viewer is left in the dark as to the creative contribution that Wildworks is bringing. Owen Sheers too appears in one scene of discussion along with Carys Shannon. But the script for “the Passion” is depicted as emerging without discussion or difficulty. Maybe it did spring forth as an immaculate conception. But some footage of its forging between Sheen and Sheers would have been illuminating. There is an awful lot of unalloyed niceness on show.

Michael Sheen, who dominates the editing, is shown as an engaging and inspiring presence. Early on he makes the trip to Oberammergau whose passion play started as a bargain with God for saving the town from the plague. Sheen’s desacralisation of Christ- “Jesus as conduit, a kind of vessel, to listen”- is appealing. It even wins over an initially hesitant Church for “opening up Christ to those of all faiths or no faith.” As the day of performance inexorably approaches his mood, he says, oscillates from “depths of despair to being reasonably happy.” There speaks, one might suspect, many a director on many a production.

The voice-over script speaks of “the military-style organisation of feature films” that Michael Sheen is used to. Maybe that is a suitable metaphor for film-makers, maybe not. The script also speaks of the “enormity of the project.” The word “enormity” means wickedness, outrageousness. BBC Wales is the national broadcaster and holds a position of privilege. It gets its words right, full stop. Programme-making can be outsourced but the national broadcaster’s quality standards are inviolable. If this film, one of great warmth and interest, is to be re-shown this line needs to be re-edited.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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