The Passion of Port Talbot: The Sacred Heart of a Secular Narrative

The Passion of Port Talbot: The Sacred Heart of a Secular Narrative

Carys Ruth Walsh (St Mellitus College, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1955-3.ch008


This chapter examines a dramatic reinterpretation of The Passion narrative which took place in Port Talbot in 2011. It explores the roots of the drama (within the medieval mystery tradition and the local context), its production, and the impact which the drama had upon the town, to consider how this reinterpretation, whilst primarily secular in conception and content, might nevertheless have opened a ‘religious space' for the community. The production of The Passion of Port Talbot is discussed in the light of an analogous ‘theo-dramatic' understanding of how God acts in the world. The chapter goes on to explore whether in the impact of The Passion, traces of the sacred might be discerned, embedded within the apparently secular, and that in the ‘religious space' opened up by this production, the transformative power of a community's spiritual and religious heritage might have been activated.
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Michael Sheen’s The Passion and Dave McKean’s subsequent film version, The Gospel of Us, unzipped Port Talbot like a corset and everything fell out for the world to see. (Rees, 2013, p.167)

In April 2011, an extraordinary event took place in South Wales. A theatrical production, The Passion, later brought to life in the film The Gospel of Us (McKean, 2012), was staged in Port Talbot. Lasting a record-breaking seventy-two hours over Easter weekend in 2011, using for its stage the whole town of Port Talbot, its beach, roads, public buildings and drawing on more than 2000 local people as actors and audience, The Passion has been described as “one of the most ambitious community theatre events ever staged in Britain” (BBC, 2012). It culminated in a dramatic crucifixion scene on the Port Talbot sea-front attended by thousands of townspeople, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before them.

Born out of a creative partnership between actor Michael Sheen and National Theatre Wales, The Passion of Port Talbot tells the story of ‘The Teacher’, who arrives in the town with no memory. The Teacher finds himself standing up against authorities who have imperiously shaped the life of the community, and on a quest to recover not only his own memory, but that of the people among whom he is situated. The Teacher shares supper with his equally lost friends, is imprisoned, and having walked for several hours carrying the cross which will become the instrument of his execution, is eventually put to death on a small piece of land between town and sea, a local roundabout. It is finally in his death throes that memories return and pour through him, recalling the lost and displaced of the town. And so he dies and his body is lowered from the cross; but from the resulting ‘Pietà’, he cries: “it is finished; it has begun”.

Circling around the town of Port Talbot, The Passion was essentially developed to serve and to memorialize the community which inspired it, and drew heavily on the profound sense of history and identity within the town. Yet, whilst conceived as a ‘secular’ piece, this dramatic production also emerged out of passion narratives of the gospels, and out of the rich theatrical tradition of the medieval mystery plays which had shaped centuries of experience of the passion narratives.

This chapter explores The Passion: its emergence from the narrative of a town, its dramatic roots, and how this complex and layered production wove together the secular and the sacred in what proved to be a significant event in the life of the community. It also considers the impact of The Passion on Port Talbot, and raises the question as to whether this explicitly secular production nevertheless opened up a religious ‘space’ for the community. In part (and perhaps inevitably), the thematic resonances between The Passion of Port Talbot and the Christian tradition are explored. To open up the discussion further, the extent to which the production process and enactment of The Passion bore an analogous relationship with a particular theological understanding of how God acts in the world, is also considered; and ultimately, the question is asked as to whether the impact of The Passion bore the traces of a vision of the sacred embedded within the apparently secular.


The Passion Of Port Talbot: The Beginnings

To turn my back on this place would be to turn my back on myself Michael Sheen. (BBC, 2012)

In the BBC Radio 4 Film Programme, Michael Sheen discussed with presenter Matthew Sweet the origins of The Passion, which was filmed as The Gospel of Us. He explored just how much the idea had its roots deep within the context of Port Talbot and its fortunes, in the local theatrical tradition of Passion Play productions, and also, as a consequence, deep within his own personal and cultural heritage. One element of the origins of this production lay in Michael Sheen’s realisation that, after years of trying to escape his history, he grasped that who he was in exile “wasn’t me”:

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