Michael Sheen has more reason than most to pray for good weather this Easter. The star of films such as The Queen (2006), Frost/Nixon (2008) and The Damned United (2009) will spend much of the weekend roaming the streets of Port Talbot, a seaside industrial town in south Wales, and one night sleeping rough on a hill outside the town. If it rains, he will notice.
Best known for unnervingly accurate portrayals of Tony Blair, broadcaster David Frost and football manager Brian Clough, Sheen has returned from Los Angeles, where he lives now, to his home town, 32 miles from Cardiff. He is here to act in – and co-direct – The Passion, a spectacular retelling of the biblical story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ which will unfold, over three days, from 3pm on Good Friday to late evening on Easter Sunday.
While Passion plays have their origins in medieval liturgical drama, the tradition is still alive in towns across the world – most famously Oberammergau in Bavaria, where once every decade 2,000 villagers stage the story in an extraordinary community ritual. Sheen’s own enthusiasm originates in boyhood memories of an earlier Port Talbot Passion play (staged every two years between 1978 and 1998). He recalls one scene in particular in which local participants poured out of the woods. “It was like a town on the move. It just completely overwhelmed me.”
The Passion, though, will be different. While it follows the shape of the original narrative, it will transpose the story from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to 21st-century Port Talbot, and examine what happens when a charismatic teacher (Sheen) arrives in town and challenges a powerful authority figure. “It’s a sort of riff around the story of the Passion,” explains Sheen.
Staged by National Theatre Wales as a grand finale to the company’s first year, it will deploy more than 1,000 volunteers, from a male voice choir to a local stonemason (making the gravestone), run continuously all weekend and take over the whole town.
Aled Humphreys, 43, who has worked at the local steelworks for 20 years and is commercial manager of Taibach Rugby Club, is playing a security guard. “People won’t be able to avoid it – in a positive way,” he says.
Sheen, 42, is a compact, friendly man with a bright smile. His hair, tidily cropped when he played Blair, has escaped into a curly mop and he has a thickening beard in preparation for his role. He is breezily energetic, but has a resolute sense of purpose: this is a huge enterprise that has taken two years of planning.
He recalls an early meeting with National Theatre Wales. “I suddenly found myself saying, ‘We could do a modern version of the Passion play,’” he says. Since then, Sheen has returned to Port Talbot on a regular basis and has assembled an impressive crew. Owen Sheers, a leading Welsh poet and novelist, is writing the script, and Bill Mitchell, artistic director of WildWorks, a Cornish company that specialises in huge outdoor events, is co-directing.
Sheen is keen not to “just turn up like a circus” or to impose his views. His main preoccupation is to involve local people and their stories: he and Sheers have spent months listening to residents and visiting community groups, such as women’s refuge centres. “It’s finding a way of taking a mythic, universal, spiritual story and interweaving it with the stories of the town,” he says. “But the more specific and local we make this, hopefully the more universal it will become.”
He describes the Port Talbot Passion as neither secular nor religious – “it’s a story” – and recalls a formative moment in his approach: “I was in a chapel in Rome, surrounded by pictures of Jesus with the old, the young, the dying and the sick. I suddenly became overwhelmed by thinking, ‘At this very moment, in Port Talbot, there are people doing all this.’ And it just clicked into place for me what this project could be. Instead of our Jesus figure being the one who has come to heal and teach, he’s come to listen to the people who are doing what the original figure did.
“By doing this story here in this town and, specifically, talking to the people who are doing the most overlooked of work, you start to find what it is that’s worth living for, really. It’s not about saying, ‘Look how awful everything is’; it’s saying, ‘Look at the miraculous change that can take place.’”
To that end, the show will celebrate an unromanticised vision of Port Talbot. Although a seaside town, it is defined by heavy industry. A power plant, a steelworks and a former chemical plant have all brought work to the area, but have also scarred its appearance and reputation.
“If the town was a person, it would be exactly the sort of person Jesus would have consorted with,” says Sheen. “Port Talbot is the place that smells, it’s dirty, nobody wants to come here. So this project grew out of the feeling of a town that is overlooked, literally bypassed, kind of despised.”
He says this with the robust affection of one who grew up in the town and regards it as “home”. A glance outside the window explains his feelings. We are sitting in the Aberavon Surf Lifesaving Club on Port Talbot seafront: it’s here that The Passion will begin and end. Wind spatters the windows with fine rain and churns up the sea. A lone dog owner walks along the wet strand, braced against the spray. There is a stern beauty to the place; it’s the sort of setting of which a tourist board might dream, were it not for the huge steelworks squatting at the end of the beach, belching out steam like some latter-day Welsh dragon.
Even more striking is the impact of the M4 motorway, which sliced its way through Port Talbot in the 1960s. In Llewellyn Street, for example, one side of the road is a row of modest terraced houses; the other a forest of concrete pillars supporting the motorway. The effect is surreal: like looking at a split screen with two entirely different places on each side. It is hard, says Sheen, for those who wake up every morning to cars whizzing past overhead not to feel that “There’s nothing here worth stopping for.” His plan for the production, then, is to stop – to stage key scenes in some unlovely parts of town: an underpass, a shopping centre, a car park behind the Sandfields Social & Labour Club. The Last Supper will take place inside the club, in a bar more used to housing comedians than saviours; the crucifixion will take place on a grassy roundabout.
Turning a town into a stage-set is a tricky business, however. Adele Thomas, a project associate with National Theatre Wales, describes the planned start to the show, which will bring together on the beach the male voice choir, local acrobats and child musicians, while a group of characters arrive by boat – weather permitting. “We’re working closely with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on that because it’s quite an involved piece of choreography,” she says, wryly.
Mitchell, the co-director, will work to keep the narrative clear on a windy beach or a busy shopping centre, while blurring the boundaries between the drama and reality. “You should get to the point where you don’t know what is part of the show, and what isn’t,” he says.
For all this gritty reality, Sheen is adamant that he doesn’t want to dismay believers: “I don’t want anyone to feel offended or upset. I want it to be challenging, I want it to be engaging. But I don’t want anyone to feel like we’re taking them or the story lightly.”
Sheen is not alone in reviving the tradition of the Passion play as an epic piece of community theatre. In 2006, for example, The Manchester Passion (broadcast live on BBC3) used music by local bands, and the Last Supper was catered to by a fish-and-chip van. And this October The Glasgow Passion, set in a futuristic police state and written by playwright Rob Drummond, hopes to attract up to 5,000 people to the city’s George Square.
Passion plays meet the current enthusiasm for large-scale, site-specific shows (a major strand of the National Theatre Wales programme – last August the company produced a critically acclaimed version of The Persians, staged on a military base in the Brecon Beacons), and for “immersive” drama: productions that plunge their audiences into the world of the play. There has been an upsurge in this sort of theatre in Britain, led by companies such as Punchdrunk, who commandeer disused spaces (staging Macbeth in an old Victorian school, for instance). There’s a zest, too, for works that blur the borderline between players and spectators.
But Passion plays also offer something deeper: the opportunity for the everyday to meet the mysterious, for the secular to meet the sacred. Taking part has had a particular resonance for Christians through the centuries. So can a Passion play speak to a wider audience in an increasingly secular age? What meaning can it offer to those who believe differently, who don’t believe, or who don’t know what they believe?
John McGrath, artistic director of National Theatre Wales, says: “It’s one of the ways we understand the world, whatever belief we might bring to it. And transformation is at its heart: it’s about a man who transforms people and in dying is transformed.”
Sheen observes that “it’s a story of death, rebirth and sacrifice. I hope a devout Christian is able to watch it and see what makes them want to be Christian, but I hope the same would be true for a Buddhist, a Muslim or an atheist.” He adds: “And saying ‘love each other’ is not an easy doctrine.”
As he talks, the clouds open and the rain begins to beat against the windows. Sheen glances at the weather. “It’s dramatic,” he says, with a grin. “I’m hoping it’s not going to be like this on the day but, whatever it’s like, we’ll have to go with it. What you lose in terms of body heat, you gain in drama.”
Whatever the weather, the performance will be gruelling. Ken Tucker, a retired drama teacher who taught Sheen at school and who is playing the mayor in The Passion, played Jesus several times in the town’s earlier Passion play. “The crucifixion is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” he recalls.
By the end, after three days on the go, Sheen reckons his main priority will be “a lie-down in a nice bed”. But he hopes that the spirit of the piece will leave its trace: “Every time someone goes round that roundabout, if, for a split second, they think, ‘That’s where the crucifixion happened,’, just for a moment, life becomes slightly translucent. We see something more universal and epic. I hope that, just for a second, we will be able to see our town and our lives slightly differently.”
Sarah Hemming is the FT’s theatre critic
‘The Passion’, Port Talbot, Wales, April 22-24, www.nationaltheatrewales.org