It is eerie seeing your old home town suddenly becoming the center of a spiritual phenomenon.
I am originally from Port Talbot in South Wales, a town that has lived through very hard times. Once intended as the cutting edge of European industry in the 1950s, Port Talbot became a classic boom town, at its peak employing some twenty thousand at its gargantuan steelworks. By the 1980s, though, that industry collapsed, leaving behind a rustbelt world that would be instantly familiar to any American who knows declining cities like Johnstown PA or Gary Indiana. It is a depressed and depressing place.
Now, though, enter my fellow-Port Talbot native Michael Sheen, the dazzlingly versatile actor best known perhaps for his uncanny portrayals of Tony Blair in several films, not to mention Frost/Nixon. Last year, Sheen starred in a boldly ambitious project, namely a passion play that in effect took over the whole town as its stage. Adding enormously to the theatrical impact is the natural scenery that Port Talbot still boasts, including some breathtaking seashore and dunes that featured memorably in the event. Sheen stars as a mysterious stranger called the Teacher, who appears to deliver the word of his Father. The Teacher is betrayed, and sentenced to death. Ultimately, the crowds follow him through the streets as he moves towards his bloody execution, soaked in blood and carrying his cross.
For a few days, blasted and forgotten Port Talbot made global headlines, and now, the whole event has been released as a film called The Gospel of Us: do watch the memorable trailer, and also the interview with Michael Sheen himself. The film is directed by Dave McKean, the near-legendary artist associated with illustrating such pop culture landmarks as The Sandman and Arkham Asylum. As with the 2011 passion play, it has been fascinating to watch the respect with which even the most secular British critics have treated the event, and its underlying ideas. The Observer described it as one of the great theatrical events of the decade. The film is just released in the UK: I have no idea about US release plans, but the McKean link should raise the odds considerably.
Sheen himself makes no claims about his personal religious beliefs, but the impact on spectators has been noteworthy. Journalist Allison Pearson wrote powerfully about the original play:
“Well, last weekend, Christ came to stay in Port Talbot, even if the embarrassment of our secular age meant that, in this performance, his name was never spoken aloud. God the Father himself – a roofer in a blue boiler-suit surveying his creation from scaffolding attached to a council house – was known as Dad. If that seems timid or dumbed down, just consider that there were people on that miles-long procession to the Crucifixion on a roundabout [rotary] by the seafront who have never been taught the greatest story. They think the meaning of Easter is a caramel rabbit. ‘Why is the sad man carrying that big log?’ one child asked his mother as Sheen, in his crown of thorns, passed by.”
Pearson participated in the mass procession to the cross, but flagged under the pressure of heat and numbers. She wanted to give up and leave, but her daughters refused strenuously, declaring: “We can’t leave Jesus now. His cross is so heavy. If he can do it, so can we.”
Amazing to find Port Talbot teaching core lessons in theology …