National Theatre Wales’ final production of their inaugural year was a masterful play that was acted as a common act of creation, while skillfully weaving memories, seemingly both real and imaginary into a unifying spectacle. Based on the traditional Passion play it was by turns epic and particular, dramatic and poignant. In real time, over 72 hours, Port Talbot turned into a multi-platform, multi-reality stage.
Even by dawn on Good Friday – where the somewhat secret dawn ‘baptism’ of Michael Sheen’s character, The Teacher, took place on Aberavon beach – the sense not only of anticipation, but of mass participation was palpable around the town. Those who caught glimpses of the news, interviews with the Teacher’s mother, missing person signs, Banksy-style graffiti and flyers for a faceless corporation called ICU, will have already felt that this was more than glorified viral marketing.
The play began in earnest on the beach with the arrival of The Company Man of the ICU to announce big plans for Port Talbot. But when someone smells ulterior motives and makes a move as a suicide bomber, it is then that The Teacher steps in. With no apparent memory, he merely asks the person to “tell me your story”. From then on, The Teacher gathers friends (rather than disciples) on his journey, and as the resistance grows (cleverly orchestrated within the large crowds by community performers) against the ICU’s plans, he becomes increasingly focused upon by both sides, as a martyr and a villain.
However grandiose and blunt the allegories, this play is clearly about something different. And without stating the obvious, that is clearly the town it is set in. Owen Sheers, who wrote the script for The Passion, uses the communicative clarity of the Christian allegory’s well during the grander and more theatrical dialogue of the Trial and Announcement scenes at the Civic Centre, which are scattered with the minutiae of half-mythical memories and dreamt facts – whether it be in the jarringly personal and particular protest signs (I love Aberavon Beach or Save the Grand Hotel) or the memorials lit quietly across from The Teacher’s prostate body as he’s cleansed before his crucifixion.
However, the play never leans on the religious tropes. Rather, Sheers’ portrayal of the bland and blinkered corporation and the resistance to it act as a counterpoint to the more tender scenes of personal stories, accompanied by a multitude of superb visual, choral and musical turns.
Sheers’ writing comes alive in these scenes, often poetic in not only its simplicity but the relationship between the characters struggling for memories and thoughts and those words and the downfall of the town. This is present in a dystopic scene which is surprisingly reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s writing. Near St. Mary’s Church, beneath a road underpass, two boys inhabit a decrepit environ; covered in rubble, mangled wire and electronic equipment in a trolley that allows them to ‘remember’ those who have died in the town, their names scribed stoically onto every inch of the walls. It is these people that The Teacher gathers to him, those who have forgotten or live only shrouded in memories past. By the time they reach the Seaside Social Club for a last supper of beer and sandwiches, the momentum of the play is set. While dramatically this is driven by both the inevitable tragedy we know that is to follow as well as the unstoppable power of ICU, the shared joy at watching this play was beginning by this point to drive something altogether more special.
The play was at this point about so much more; it’s symbolic power being drawn around and filled in by the people of the town who, whether performing or watching, gradually became more involved in the shared drama. By the time Sheen’s character is condemned and painfully beaten in the shopping centre (covered in newspaper) while the crowd watch on CCTV, the excitement at the drama is tinged with genuine sadness and shock, only topped by the dramatic events of the crucifixion. The Teacher is ordered to construct his own cross and trudges the three miles toward the beach, covered in blood and wearing a barbed wire crown. By the time he reaches his end, it is three hours later, and the line between play and audience has disintegrated, with thousands having followed him through the streets and bands playing along the way. The apocalyptic brass dirge that welcomes him to his place of death culminates in the most dramatic of finales: his crucifixion, followed by a deathly silence, and his howls of pain giving way to his remembrance of places lost: “I remember…Beach Hill” and countless other things, seemingly throwaway historical artifacts or lost people, but to the cheering crowd, poignant.
The play insists on not petering out to memories gone and the reappearance of the stranger announcing “It is finished” is watched by the crowd in gasping awe as his hooded veil is ripped off to reveal The Teacher saying “It has begun”. It is the dramatic ending that the play deserves, leaving the audience stunned, perhaps the only other emotion I’d yet to feel, on a most hallowed of weekends.
Words: Lloyd Griffiths.
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