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1 April 2021

10yrs since The Passion of Port Talbot

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Ten years ago, across Easter weekend, the company was delivering The Passion of Port Talbot. 

The Passion was a co-production between National Theatre Wales and Wildworks, starring and co-directed by Michael Sheen. Taking inspiration from one of the defining narratives of our times, this riotous contemporary re-telling of the Passion story was scripted by Owen Sheers and took place across the town of Port Talbot from Good Friday to Easter Sunday 2011. The people of the town were cast, crew, and heroes – over 1,000 people actively participated in the creation of this work. As for people attending over the three-day period, we lost count at 25,000.. 

This yeamarks a decade since this momentous project we have invited a few of those involved to share their memories. These memories were just so special, we thought we would share them here within this blog. 

 

To begin, we are delighted to share with you an hour with Michael Sheen, recalling his own memories of the process and performance – you can listen in the audio player below. 

“For me, a lot of the last 10 years of my life has been defined by the Passion. Back in 2010, I had production managed NTW’s 3rd production – The Devil Inside Him, but the show I had my eye on was number 13 – The Passion – I made a bold statement to the Exec Producer that I was the only woman in Wales who could deliver the production for such a project. And so it was – I was given the role. My first Safety Advisory Meeting in Sept 2010 all of the room looked at me and said I needed locking up! And so it was, back and forth to Port Talbot, creative partners, friendships for life, an abundance of memories and a wife.
 

We ran the gauntlet – we were so ambitious, we had so little budget, the warmth of the town, the town’s love of Michael, his creative vision, the partnership between NTW and Wildworks. It was all just magic.
 

I could write a book of memories, every week, every day – we worked hard, we played hard, we were part of a massive adventure, and the Easter weekend was so special, reality and theatre fused, the crucifix in our back garden! Dinner in Remo’s, a pint in the Four Winds, everyone in the town saying hi.
 

And still today, I give lectures on the Passion, other projects I work on refer to the Passion as inspiration, my confidence in my craft has grown and I will always enjoy a walk on Aberavon beach and lunch in Remo’s.” 

 

Sarah HemsleyCole, Production Manager  

The very beginning of seventy two hours of performance, dawn on Aberavon beach. We are standing in the sea ankle deep, then knee deep, then waist deep as the tide advances and we wait for Michael to come to his baptism. A small hardy group of witnesses gather. It is timeless time, dreamlike. I have no idea how long we wait. Then Michael appears in the distance, walking through the great arch of driftwood we’d built as the gateway from the dunes. The baptism is almost violent. This is more ritual than show. We wrap Michael in blankets and carry him up the beach, with Shoshana’s beautiful voice accompanying us. It is intensely emotional, something I will never forget. We sit together around the fire that Pete has lit and eat spiced porridge, a First Breakfast to mirror the Last Supper. None of us really speak for a long time. 

 

Sue Hill, Actor/Community Director/Designer

Founding Artist – Wildworks 

I was John The Baptist. 

I spent a week sleeping on the beach under an arch of washed-up tree’s trunks preparing for the start of the show. 

The forecast for the weekend was a three-day biblical downpour that we didn’t talk about. 

Friday morning came and we went into the sea at dawn. 

As I threw Michael under the crashing waves and held him under, I saw the sun come out from behind the clouds and it didn’t stop shining for three days  

I walked the town for three days talking with the people and slept on the beach at night. 

Watching, waiting, being with the people waiting, waiting for the crucifixion  

On top of churches, on top of garages, I rode every escalator in the town and leant on every wall and visited every gravestone. 

The people of the town opened their doors to me, gave me ice cream and water and kindness and shelter from the sun. 

On the Sunday I remember walking alone for hours ahead of the procession to the cross.  

Walking through the whole town with thousands of people lined up on the roadside. 

And then after three delirious days of noise and people and carnival and violence, I remember standing on the roundabout underneath the cross and watching it rise up and the whole town went silent.  

And then the resurrection and the show finished and I knew I would never be in a performance like that ever again. 

 

Nigel Barrett, Actor 

10 years since the Port Talbot Passion…. I review my working notebooks and I am transported back to the many, many times that I visited the town in the nearly two years run up to the event. At the outset there are long lists of places and people to visit: Barnardo’s, Sandfields Comp, Youth Offending Team, Organised Kaos, Bethany Chapel, Seaside Social and Labour Club, Free runners of Aberavon Beach Mr Pugh, Sister Denise of the Methodist Church in Sanfields, the Writing Squad, and many, many more. As the process develops my notes become more detailed: 

We were attracted to T. W.’s place because her front room had been turned into a magical Christmas shrine, clearly displayed for passers-by to enjoy. She welcomed us into her house, She’s a deacon at Methodist Chapel. Gorgeous lady, warm and lovely. I now remember her surrounded by a kind of halo of light.” 

“Met with R. and R., childhood friends and cricket enthusiasts, one lived on one side of the street, where he still is. The other lived opposite and was moved when the motorway came.“ 

“They started to talk about the high risk of working in the steelworks, the bad air, the fact that all rich people live in Porth Cawl, which is clean and lovely, whereas anything polluting ends in Port Talbot.” 

“They said that there are vast coal resources under Port Talbot and that there is a plan in the Council to knock down Port Talbot and exploit the coal.”  

“Visited A, he told us about the auntie that walked out of ‘The Sound of Music’ because she was offended that the nun got married, even though she was a Methodist herself; his dog, Spot, who dragged him down the street in a re-enactment of the chariot scene in Ben Hur.” 

What I remember best is the passion of the people of Port Talbot and how they took on the project as utterly personal, a chance to show themselves in all their fierce resilience. Our 72 hour event involved the whole town, from those performing at the centre of the action to the ones who decorated the outside of their homes with pictures of loved ones garlanded in flowers. 

The moment when the final procession to Calvary, with thousands of people following the Teacher, turned the corner into Aberavon Beach front, to be received by thousands more, was completely breath taking. And the roars from the crowd as the crucified Teacher shouted “I remember!” and a litany of memories from the town. Unforgettable… 

 

Mercedes Kemp, Writer/Researcher and Community Director 

Founding Artist – Wildworks 

My greatest memory was on the final day, in the lane behind Tanygroes Street, where I live, when the Teacher entered the stonemason’s opposite my back gate and reappeared carrying the cross on his back. It was a real honour for myself and my neighbours to be asked, a few days previously, to decorate our back walls with photographs of our loved ones in preparation for the filming in the lane. There were dozens of onlookers in the lane that day. At the moment when the Teacher emerged from the stonemason’s, wearing his crown of thorns, with a heavy cross on his back, every single person was silent. Nothing could be heard apart from the footsteps of the Teacher and the guards escorting him. It was breathtaking, a moment I will never forget. 

 

Beverley Carver, Community Participant  

“Even after 10 years, I am not yet capable of describing my feelings for “The Passion “ 

I knew that it was special, even as I was going through it, from the first rehearsal, to the Sunday night at the Cross, and I tried so hard to keep hold of the magic, even as the time was slipping through my fingers. 

And Port Talbot! 

And the people! 

A million laughs and 

A million kindnesses. 

And, of course, the glorious weather. 

It was like going on holiday- 

the best holiday, 

and coming home- 

the best homecoming, 

all at the same time, 

and in the same place “ 

 

Di Botcher, Actor 

“The weather has blessed us for all three days, the sky is azure. A man is staggering down the streets of Port Talbot, bloodied, beaten, dragging a large wooden cross, surrounded by twenty thousand people, street performers, children’s choirs, drummers, Marks and Sparks in the background. It is pure Bunüel. Many bystanders cannot seem to look at him directly. Instead they aim their mobile phones and small cameras at him, right in his face sometimes, as he passes, preferring the mediated image on screen to facing the raw reality of the man. It is the most disturbing scene so far.

Dusk falls and gradually the array of tiny phone lights merge with spume blown inland from the sea and caught in the theatrical spots converging on a cross on the roundabout, to form a galaxy of stars, a cathedral of candles, the scene has become calm, infinite, transcendent.” 

 

Dave McKean, Artist & Filmmaker (Gospel of Us)

“It was the most bizarre and beautiful experience. I laughed all through rehearsals and cried all of that weekend. 

I still can’t properly get my head around it. Nothing will top it 

I’ve a million different stories.  

I’ll never forget the last day and the long walk through town as Michael carried the cross in the blazing heat surrounded by my best mates”
 

Matthew Aubrey, Actor 

One memory I won’t forget in a hurry happened during Michael’s epic walk carrying the cross. I can’t remember how many followers were part of this journey, 6/7 thousand. (maybe someone else can be more accurate here. Feel free to change) We were a fair distance along the way when Michael needed to go to the loo so we stopped the procession and accompanied by a couple of his disciples, he rang the doorbell of the terraced house that we happened to be passing. They let him in of course. Not an easy one to refuse is it, Jesus on your doorstep needing the toilet.                                                                        

 

Steve Jacobs, Actor/Community Director 

So many memories… Cycling in the dark through the town to the beach before dawn on Good Friday, ready for it to begin; laughing with the neighbours on Llewellyn Street; weeping together in the shopping centre as Michael’s mum washed his feet; the incredible energy and joy across the town growing each sunny day; the Manics igniting Saturday night’s last supper at the Seaside Social; sitting cross-legged high on a scaffolding tower late on a beautiful darkening Easter Sunday night watching the crucifixion, overwhelmed by what we had made happen…. 

 

Lucy Davies, Executive Producer,  National Theatre Wales (20092013) 

Dawn!  

Aberavon beach. The Baptism and the beginning of our 72 hours of theatre. Shaking with cold and nerves, 11 of us are stood waiting for Michael Sheen to arrive over the sand dunes. We have very neatly arranged ourselves in a line, along the shore. Waves gently lapping at our feet, we stand and calmly wait as an unexpectedly large audience begin to arrive … 

45 minutes later… Michael still hasn’t shown, the waves are now waist high, and the calm has begun to descend into a mild panic. And then he appears and we are off on a wild rollercoaster ride that will hold a huge place in my heart forever. 

Lessons learnt…  

Hold your nerve!  

…and always check your tide times.” 

 

Mydd Pharo, Production Designer 

Artistic Director – Wildworks 

“Of the many, many memories from the weekend of The Passion, the one I return to most often is the first – the baptism – bodies in the water as the tide rises, dancers in care homes across the bay, a man pulled underwater, a sense of the profound. It begins!  Only a few witnesses on the beach – we’d slept overnight in the sand dunes – a wind across the water, and the most beautiful of images, just bodies in the landscape but so perfectly composed.  Performance and place combined to jaw-dropping effect. A miracle was happening.”  

 

John McGrath, Founding Artistic DirectorNational Theatre Wales (2009-2015) 

“Working on The Passion with Mydd, Bill and Michael Sheen and going to the studios of The Manic Street Preachers where Michael introduced me as his Musical Director, to which Nicky Wire said, ‘Cool Claire, so what do you want?’, ‘Well, I’d like to hear the song you’ve got in mind’ I replied.  

They then performed ‘Design for Life’ to just a handful of us in the studio, with lyrics specially adapted for our show.  

It was a moment I will never forget.” 

 

Claire Ingleheart, Composer and Musical Director 

“What began as a project for Organised Kaos- become the most life changing event for me personally, and the company. The legacy of involvement 10 years on still echoes through the valley’s at what we achieved creatively and collectively. 

The Passion- was just that- passionate, community, creative and large scale. 

The process and production highlights that when people come together on so many different levels in a collective pursuit of creating a show- sparks fly, and they did- I met my wife, re-connected with my community creatively and all of it under a glorious sun and blue skies that stayed with us throughout the development and show. I grew up here- I never before associated port Talbot with its Steel works headgear as a back drop for an immense site-specific show- whilst lathering on factor 50 in February with the beach front looking more like the Bahamas than the usual windy grey landscape of Aberavon.  

The memories hold strong- like yesterday- with clarity of dialogue, friendships and co-creation with a diverse pool of creative’s and community as we held each other’s hands in laughter and a shared vision to celebrate our identity and landscape for the whole world to see. 

Can we do it again please?” 

 

Nicola Hemsley-Cole 

Founder and Artistic Director of Organised Kaos 

“Being in a play with your best friends, walking the old school route to rehearsal and performing outside my mother’s workplace. Getting to know my town again and that beach. Only Port Talbot could turn itself into a huge theatre space. We weren’t a bypass that weekend, we were the place to be – we were us.” 


Jordan Bernarde, Actor 

“First let me say how thrilled I am that you are commemorating the 10th anniversary of The Passion of Port Talbot.

My greatest memory is being with Mary Magdalene (Di Botcher) helping to wash the Teacher (Michael Sheen) in the Port Talbot Shopping Centre with the choir singing beautifully from the balcony. To be there with my son and play a very small part in this wonderful, amazing, magical event. I will never forget those moments”.

Irene Sheen, Micheal’s Mother

 

Photos: Ian Kingsnorth & Rich Hardcastle