Wildworks, the theatre company that produced Michael Sheen’s play The Passion of Port Talbot, celebrates 10 years since it took place with a page with anecdotes from people who took part and a recording of Michael Sheen talking about his memories of the event:
I suppose my first memory of The Passion is how the idea came into being in the first place. I’d been asked whether I wanted to talk about doing something with the new National Theatre of Wales, which didn’t exist at that point, it had been something… a national theatre for Wales was something that had been discussed and argued about for decades upon decades. But now it was actually going to happen. And so I remember going to Cardiff, going to an empty upstairs room at an Italian restaurant in Cardiff, and meeting Lucy who was the dramaturg for the National Theatre Wales, to talk about what their inaugural season might be and how I might be involved.
And I remember going to this meeting very sort of chippy about it, very arrogant, thinking oh they’re gonna ask me to do Hamlet in Cardiff or something and I’m oh I don’t wanna do that. But I found myself having a conversation with Lucy in this empty upstairs floor of an Italian restaurant in Cardiff, and she was saying that they were very interested in exploring the idea of doing projects that were much more connected to the communities that they were taking part in, and also exploring the idea of getting out of theatres and experimenting with maybe doing more outdoor work or site specific work and that kind of thing.
And so I found myself sort of against my will really, sitting there saying well, I mean the only community I could possibly feel like I could do something within that I’m connected to would be the community in Port Talbot where I grew up, and where my family still lived at that point, and which I still visited regularly, even though I wasn’t living there. So that’s the only community I could feel in any way, you know, authentic about being, doing something with or in.
And in terms of doing something that’s sort of more outside, it immediately made me think of the Passion play that used to happen in a local park, Margam Park, when I was growing up. And it was organised by the local Catholic church, and my drama teacher from comprehensive school, Ken Tucker, took part in it, he would sometimes play Jesus, and sometimes play Judas.
And the community took part in it. Grandparents, with their grandchildren would be crowd, with their, you know, trousers rolled up under their biblical costume. And it was the story of the Passion of Christ and it took place in Margam Park outdoors and people would sit in this sort of bleachers seating and watch the story take place in front of them. And it would end with the crucifixion as the sun went down. And I remember being incredibly affected by that when I was younger, it was just very powerful imagery and an extraordinarily powerful story, and I think, you know, not being in a theatre, being outside, seemed to have an effect on me as well, that seemed very unusual, and seeing just people that I knew, from our town, and my teachers and people like that, taking part in it. So it all had a big effect on me.
And I remember being very sort of fascinated and compelled by the Christ story, the Easter story, when I was growing up. And I remember, you know, being very into the Jesus Christ Superstar musical record that I had, and I would listen to that with the lights off and all that kind of stuff. And always being affected by the story if I saw you know films about it, or anything like that. And I wasn’t, I certainly didn’t consider myself as a Christian in any formal or official way, but that story held a very big power, obviously over our entire culture and society in the west. So of course it would be as well, but I suppose because it had become…my family had been religious.
My grandfather had been a lay preacher, my great grandfather had been a street preacher, and my family, my Mum and Dad and myself and my sister had gone to church when we were, when I was much younger. But that had sort of fallen away really, in any sort of regular way. And I didn’t…you know, the sort of official church, the religion, the going to church, all that kind of stuff, didn’t really have any hold on me any more. But that story at the heart of it, I still found incredibly compelling in ways that I couldn’t really describe or put my finger on.
And so I found myself in this Italian restaurant, saying well, you know this Passion play that I used to go and see, maybe I could do something like that, like a retelling of the Passion story, and with the community in Port Talbot and use that as a sort of a template, and maybe I could a sort of a second coming story or, these are things that had sort of, I’d been playing with in my head for years really, the idea of what would happen if there was, if you told that, if that happened now, if that Christ story happened now or if there was a sort of second coming and all that kind of thing.
So it was something that had been kind of knocking around, and there I found myself, even though I had thought that I didn’t want to be involved in any of this, National Theatre of Wales stuff, I found myself saying well you know, maybe I could do something like that. And I don’t think I ever really took it seriously that I would do that. But I found myself coming back to my Mum and Dad’s house after that meeting, having sort of said that maybe that’s something that could happen, and Lucy had said right well keep thinking about it, and you know if you decide this is not something you wanna do then that’s fine. So she was very clever at making me keep thinking about it and keep talking about it. But in the back of my head I always thought, well, eventually I’ll just say no I’m not gonna do that, this is ridiculous and this can’t happen and there we are. And I kept feeling like that really until the day we did it! [laughs] Until it was sort of too late to get out of it. But I always thought it wouldn’t happen.
But meanwhile, the story just kept developing in my head, or the ideas about it kept developing in my head, and it got bigger and bigger and more and more ambitious. And eventually Lucy said, look I think you know we should get some other people involved in this, some collaborators. And she told me about Wildworks, and about the work that they’d been, that they were famous for, and I thought that was very exciting. And sounded exactly the sort of way forward with this thing that I wasn’t actually gonna do in the end! [laughs]
And so I remember meeting with Bill and Sue and Mydd and I can’t remember, if Mercedes was there that day? I’m not sure, possibly, but definitely Bill, Sue and Mydd were there. And then I met with them in a cafe at the National Film Theatre in London, and we started talking about it and I remember thinking who are these people? [laughs]. There’s this guy who looks like a pirate, and this woman who looks like a sort of extraordinary white witch, and this other guy who looks like he should be in some sort of travelling circus or something… I didn’t know, it was extr…I didn’t know who these people were, what they were about, but I did like what they were talking about! And I did think, and I liked the way that they were excited about this, the possibilities of doing this story that I wasn’t actually ever going to do. And so I felt safe with them and I felt excited with them, and I felt unsafe with them in the right ways.
And so that kept moving forward, and then, and I think the plan was to, for Bill and everyone to come to Port Talbot. And so that was very exciting, I loved that idea of showing Bill and the Wildworks team around my home town.
And so when Bill came, I just remember having just a wonderful time really, seeing how excited Bill was by the visual and theatrical possibilities of this town. And I remember taking him down to Llewellyn Street where a big section of the performance ended up taking place on the Saturday, Llewellyn Street is the street that has the flyover, the M4 flyover, right outside the front doors of one side of the street, and the other side of the street had been demolished, in order to make way for this road that would pass over Port Talbot.
And I remember Bill being very excited by that place, and I remember him saying something there that stayed with me all the way through that production and has stayed with me ever since really, I remember him saying “just look at what you get for free!”. And that was, that was, really affected me. Standing there in Llewellyn Street and looking around at what you’ve got. And it sort of seemed to typify really this, the whole approach of working with what’s there, and trying to understand what’s already there, trying to listen to what’s already there and really see it, and let what’s already there speak to you. And then build on that.
And so I suppose in some ways through Bill and the Wildworks team, I got to listen to and see the place that I’d grown up in, in a new way, with new eyes and new ears. And the story just kept developing more and more out of that. I had things that I knew that I wanted to explore and places that I wanted to use and things that I thought would be very powerful. So I knew that the crucifixion would happen down on the roundabout at the beach, I think I sort of already knew that, I knew that I wanted to have a whole street of crosses which ended up being the road down at the beach that I eventually walked up for the last part of the journey with the cross to the roundabout, and that the lampposts all the way down that road eventually had clothes hung from them as if they were people crucified all along the way.
And that had come original from, I think, two things, one: Spartacus [laughs], watching Spartacus as a child and seeing all these, and Kirk Douglas as Spartacus and many other people crucified on the road into Rome. And then also Stephen King’s book The Stand, similar thing; the road into Las Vegas where the kind of bad guy is setting up a community, he has people crucified all the way along the desert road into Vegas. Which I think probably, Stephen King got from Spartacus as well!
But things like that I’d had, I’d had in my head since I was a kid, since I was a teenager growing up in Port Talbot, so there were a lot of things that had already been images in my head that I’d had that found their way into this, then there were other things that, through looking at the town and spending so much time there in the development of the piece, that ideas came out and then other things that you know, obviously that Bill and the Wildworks team came out with coming to this place new and fresh and seeing it in this new way.
But I do remember that the things that excited me about the town also excited Bill, and the whole of the Wildworks team there, and that was very exciting, knowing that we were kind of coming at it in the same way, and that the same things resonated. And Bill would keep coming back to me and saying, the meaning of this piece is yours, you know, we’re not from here, as much as we can try and listen and understand and empathise, and kind of connect with the stories we hear from people here, the real meaning of this piece has to come from you. And that Bill said, we will do everything we can to realise that meaning and to find ways for the people of the town to express what’s important to them, we’ll find ways to manifest that, but the meaning has to come from you.
And that was really exciting to feel like… to see how Wildworks built up this series of choruses, these, you know, different people from the community who wanted to be involved in the show and seeing them doing workshops and building up connections to things when we had no script! I mean there was nothing at that point. I mean the next collaborator who came on board was Owen Sheers, the Welsh writer, poet. And you know, we wanted to have someone who had a kind of poetic sensibility and a strong sense of narrative as well, but a strong sense of narrative in a, with a kind of poetic, mythic leaning, and Owen was suggested by again Lucy I think at the National, and I at that point started to read some of Owen’s stuff and I thought absolutely.
There was a wonderful, there was a piece, one line in a poem of Owen’s that I came across that made me go, yes this is the person who should do it, and it was about how the shadows, the shadows that our lives cast, affect other people. It was about how we affect each other and how we’re connected in that way, and that really resonated with me and I thought yes that’s exactly what this piece is, what I want it to be.
And so Owen came on board and I remember we, so then myself, Bill and Owen would just spend, visits to the town, we’d walk around different places, walk around the beach, walk around the sand dunes, walk around Llewellyn Street, and up on the mountain and all kinds of places.
Just talking through ideas and the possibilities and connections and associations, and it was, that was some of the most enjoyable parts of it for me, was those, where anything was possible, and where we just sort of sparked off each other’s imaginations and each of us coming from our different point of view, with Bill thinking of it in terms of images and how it could work with the town and the people of the town, Owen coming at it from a sort of more poetic point of view and a literary point of view, and me, I suppose with this growing sense of what it could mean, what it was about, how my own personal connection to the town and growing up there and the people I knew and my growing sense of what the community was at that point, what the town was at that point, what it’s hopes and fears and dreams were at that point, and how that might translate into a, telling a story about the town, with the town and for the town.
How that might be something that could be very meaningful, not just to me, obviously, but to the town itself and hopefully to other people as well. And so those conversations, things kept sparking and eventually it became clear to me that it needed to be one, a single performance that lasted for the whole of the Easter weekend, and that came out of our conversations.
Partly because the way we were thinking about it and the sort of performance we were talking about and the sort of story we were talking about, it became clear that it wasn’t something you could do in a one-off thing. The idea of it taking place over the entire Easter weekend seemed the right idea, and therefore it was just a, you know it was gonna be a one-off thing.
And everything, you know, everything else started to grow to that. And the other big, the other big thing for me was that I went to, I had a holiday in Italy, whilst we were developing all this, and I remember being in the St Joseph’s chapel, I think in the Basilica, in the Vatican, and, or at least I was in the, this extraordinary, Catholic, iconic building and I remember thinking, oh I’m a bit tired, bit overwhelmed by this, bit tired and I need a bit of a sit down, I need to sit down somewhere quietly, and just take this in, and I just looked around I saw off in one corner, a little nook, and it had some sort of light shining down through a window, just highlighting it, and I thought right I’ll go and sit over there.
And there was nobody there and it was just a little place out the way, and it turns out that it was St Joseph’s chapel. And it had paintings around, all the way around it, and I was looking at them as I was sitting there, and it was all of Jesus’s ministry I suppose, pictures of him, a painting of him with children and with the people who are ill and dying, kind of just all the different things that his ministry was known for.
And I remember at that moment thinking that’s, there are people in Port Talbot, in every community, but you know I was specifically thinking about the community I come from, and I was thinking there are people doing all this, all these things that are being represented here that Jesus did, there are people doing that, there are people who are, some of them being paid for it, some of them not being paid for it, and the ones who were being paid for it not being paid very much, and who are looking after the ill and the dying and the children and doing all these things, and it really hit me that all of those things, all of that caring for people, that, they were all the things that, that were the most unrewarded, they were the things that people, they were sort of thankless tasks, they were the things that you had to get your hands dirty to do, and you know most people didn’t most really want to know that that was going on until you had need of those people, need of that care and that help.
And that really hit me, and in that moment, things came into focus for me about what this project, what this performance was gonna be about, that it was taking the story of Jesus Christ’s Passion, but coming at it from the point of view that the story isn’t about him, it’s about the community, that what’s he was known for in the traditional telling of the story, we would invert it, and he would be a blank slate, and he would learn from the community about what was important.
And as a kind of vessel for that, that is why he became this dangerous figure. Because he was going into a community asking for people to tell him what was important to them, to tell them, to tell him their stories of the place, the things that they had lost, the things that mattered to them.
And so as he became filled up with this stuff, and was inciting people to say what was important about the town, there was another force going on that was trying to get people out of the town, trying to get rid of them, to take away the importance, to belittle the importance and meaning of the town because everyone had to be got out, because there was something under the town that was wanted by this sort of corporate entity.
And so that’s why he became this sort of dangerous figure. And so it was, once those things were in place, then it all sort of took shape for me.
One of my memories of the performance itself, I remember being on Good Friday morning, before the sun had come up, we were going to do this sort of unofficial piece of storytelling on that first day. Officially the performance wasn’t supposed to begin until that afternoon. But I always wanted to have something happen early that morning that would be a sort of a rumour and that maybe people would come to and witness.
And so we were down at the beach, and I remember my character was going to, my character who had supposedly been living up in the mountains with his memory lost, would wander down to the beach through the sand dunes down to sea and would receive a sort of baptism in the sea, by these mysterious figures who had been living down at the beach for the previous sort of week or so.
And so I was lying in the sand dunes waiting to get the cue for it to begin, you know. So I’m lying there, can’t see anybody else, and there was someone with a walkie talkie just sort of behind the next sand dune, and they were just gonna say “now” when my cue was to emerge from the sand dunes, to walk down to the sea.
And I remember lying there, and first of all just looking up, lying on my back in the sand dunes, and looking up into the sky that the sun was just starting to come up, and it was the most extraordinary colour, it was like this purple sky with orange-golden clouds, it was incredible. It was the most extraordinary sky I had ever seen, really.
And so lying there looking at that, and also thinking, well, there’s nothing I can do about it now. After having had literally years of developing this thing, and as it had got closer and closer the stress of it, the, I was so stressed out, the responsibility of it I felt so weighing on us, and me in particular really I suppose because it was my town! [coughs] Excuse me. And people really, nobody really knew what this thing was gonna be, but everyone just sort of expected it was gonna be, it was gonna work! And I had no idea whether it would, and the stress of that was so huge.
But that morning, when I was lying there in the sand dunes, there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to now do my, just act, I was just gonna play the character now, for 72 hours non-stop, in character, and so I couldn’t, and so I knew that the responsibility for overseeing it and the direction and the stage-managing of it, was in other people’s hands. It was Bill who was gonna, you know. Bill and the production team at the National, and it was out of my hands.
So there was a kind of immense relief about that, a weight lifted off me, as I was lying there. And I didn’t think that it would, I think I had expected that through the three days I would still feel that responsibility of you know, being the co-director of it and the kind of creator of it. And, but that morning lying there in the sand dunes, that weight just lifted off me.
And at that moment, I heard a lamb bleating. I’ll never forget this. But as I was… there were no sheep anywhere near, we were in the sand dunes, and next to the sand dunes was the beginning of the Sandfields estate. This sort of urban environment. There were no fields, or farming or anything like that. There was no livestock anywhere near there. And yet as I lay there in the sand I heard a lamb bleating. Not a sheep, a lamb. And I was… I mean it seemed extraordinary, and… of course I would hear that.
It was like the, I think the day before, we had, we were down at the, where we sort of had our production base which was at the Naval Club, just behind these sand dunes actually, and the weather was so beautiful, it was really hot and sunny and, so there was some work going on, just sort of in the car park of the Naval yard, some sort of construction work going on, and I remember there was a big commotion because a rabbit had appeared in the car park, out of nowhere, no-one knew where this rabbit come from, and you know the joke was well, it’s the Easter Bunny isn’t it, it’s the Easter Bunny who’s turned up.
And so of course, the lamb, the symbol of Jesus, I would hear a bleating lamb on this, at this moment when it was about to begin, of course, it made sense. So I’ll always remember that.
Another thing I’ll always remember is, when we got to the actual official opening of it, the official first episode of the story, down at the beach, which was the town, the great and good of the town had come out because there was a visitor coming to the town and there was a big sort of parade put on and a show, and there were gymnastic displays and choirs and brass bands and all kinds of things there ready to welcome this honoured guest who was coming, and nobody knew, the audience didn’t know who that was gonna be, and I suppose the idea was that people would think that somehow it would be this sort of Jesus figure that I was playing, but actually it wasn’t, it was the Pilate figure, known as the Company Man, who was coming.
And I was down the other end of the beach from where all this was happening, and I had to walk along the beach without anyone seeing me and then just sort of magically appear at a certain point, where all the audience would be. Now we had no idea how many people were gonna show up. And in the, you know, as we were developing and it getting closer to the time it became clearer and clearer to us that, if would be a very different experience if it was raining than if it was dry, and we had to come up with as many alternatives as possible for if it was pouring with rain, for where the audience could be and all that kind of stuff.
And I remember waking up every day in the last sort of month I suppose before we started, and the first thing I would do was look out the window at the weather. I mean why, why that would have anything to do with what the weather would be like on the day, I don’t know, but I just got used to looking at the weather and going oh right if it’s like this then we’ll have to do this, this and this.
But yeah, we had no idea, A, what the weather was like and how that would affect how many people would come, and just how many people would be interested, and show up. We had no idea. You know, maybe it would be like, maybe a hundred people would be there, and it would be, you know maybe more. I mean, we had no idea. We knew that people in the town would probably show a bit of interest and come along, and people who were involved in the piece but only in one bit of it, would be around for it and that kind of stuff, but no idea really.
So on that first day, that first official episode, I’d already done the bit down in the sea at sunrise that morning, and there had been maybe about a hundred or so people around there for that, so I thought maybe there would just be that amount later on as well. But, so I remember walking down to the sort of sea’s edge, much further down the beach, down by the Naval Club, in order to try and walk up the beach without anyone really seeing me and noticing me. And I remember looking down the beach and seeing, very far off, what looked like quite a lot of people, but I couldn’t be sure. And then as I walked down the beach with my red blanket over me, as I got closer I see there were like thousands of people there! [laughs]
The weather was unbelievable that whole weekend, the weather was glorious, baking hot at times, but beautiful. And so of course the beach was the place the people would come anyway. So we had whoever was coming down specifically to see the show, but also people who were just coming down to the beach, and then just got involved, and a lot of people I remember hearing saying that they hadn’t intended to come and see the performance, but they were coming down to the beach because the weather was so good, started watching it and then just stayed with it for the whole three days.
So I was really kind of blown away by how many people were there anyway already, and then once I sort of made my entrance so to speak, I started speaking and my voice started coming through these loudspeakers, up on the slip way where the mayor of the town, Ken Tucker, who was my old drama teacher, was addressing everyone and getting ready to welcome the, or had welcomed already, the Company Man at that point, the loudspeakers and my voice came through. And as that happened, and all that I started walking up the beach, as people, the audience people, these thousands of people started to realise that I was approaching, I just remember literally thousands of people coming, flooding towards me, all of them with their phones out, recording, taking pictures, videoing.
And that, I hadn’t expected. And in retrospect of course people were gonna do that, and we had sort of talked about that a little bit, but just the effect of thousands of people rushing towards me with their cameras filming me just was quite overwhelming and overpowering, and that first day, I remember I was really, that really affected me, how much people were filming me.
And eventually I remember when I got to the shopping centre, and people had just sort of followed me, it was in between official episodes and I went for this walk through the town, along the river, and we ended up doing our sort of version of the feeding of the five thousand with Peter’s fishing box lunch, and we shared a sandwich and an apple and a couple of biscuits or something and a Welshcake, with all the people who followed me down the river bank.
When we got to the shopping centre, I remember kind of doing this whole thing, an improvised thing about why are you all, why can’t you just be with me, why are you filming me, why are you using your phones, just be here with me, and it became a sort of, I guess without realising it, an equivalent to the, in the temple with the moneylenders and all that kind of stuff where Jesus kind of lost his rag with everybody, and it became that.
And that was, and then we sort of, and then I was able to move past that then, but I do remember that being really sort of overwhelming and overpowering, how much people sort of were behind their phones rather than actually being there.
And there are so many things over those three days really, I mean I could talk about it forever really, but, there are, the sleeping on the mountain, that first night, because in the original story Jesus had gone up the mountain that overlooked the city and stayed there that night, so I knew I wanted to stay up there that night, and I just remember being in my little tent [laughs], and we had a security guard who was sort of making sure that everything was OK, where we were up the mountain, and I remember in the very early hours hearing this security guard, I woke up to the sound of the security guard saying “no, he’s not here, he’s not here, he’s gone”. I was like, what’s he talking about. And it turned out that a man had brought his young son up the mountain in the early hours of like a Saturday morning, because he’d heard that I was up there, and he was saying “look, my son, I want Michael Sheen to meet my son, he’s gonna be a star, he’s gonna be a star, and I want Michael Sheen to meet him”. And the security guard was going, no he’s not here! He’s not here, he’s gone!
So I’m sorry that, whoever that man was. But we couldn’t do that. But I do remember that’s how I woke Saturday morning. And then I came out the tent, and just seeing the sunrise again, and coming up over the town from that viewing, viewpoint of up the mountain where I could see the whole of the town and that was, I’ll never forget that, that was incredible, to watch the sun come up over Port Talbot in that way. It’s an incredible privilege to see these things and experience the town in so many different ways.
Not just visually like that but also to have met so many people and talked to so many people and, to have so many people sort of share their, you know, quite intimate things about their lives in the town and experiences they’ve had. It was a real privilege. And that was one of the, I suppose more obvious privileges was just to be able to… how many sleep up the mountain and get to see the sun come up over the town? Anyone who has slept up the mountain presumably doesn’t wake up that early, if you’re sleeping up the mountain, I dunno why you would. But yeah to see that was incredible.
And I suppose you know, one of the biggest moments of the whole thing was on that final day with the procession of the, carrying the cross through the town. And again, you know, I wasn’t sure how many people would be into just sort of following me carrying a cross, for however many miles it was, and however, it was gonna take a long time to do this procession, but I wanted it to come from the little, it was actually a little stonemason’s yard, back in the, there was sort of a whole network of lanes, back lanes in one part of Taibach, and there at the kind of beginning of that network of lanes was this little stonemason’s yard, and that was where I wanted the procession to start from, that that was where I’d got the cross.
And then coming through the lanes, and it seemed perfect that as I came though the lanes, people could join on and meet up with me, so that by the time we came out of this network of lanes onto the main street, Station Road, of the town, there could be a whole procession formed of drummers, and a brass band and singers, and so there would be this transformation of the procession, that starts as a very lonely, isolated experience for this man who’s having to carry, sort of being tortured essentially and humiliated, but people join him along the way and it sort of transforms.
And by the time I passed the shopping centre, I was able to, I was taken into, I was taken into the shopping centre, and we’d had the shopping centre for I think 24 hours to be able to transform the inside of that into this place of sort of healing and calm and mothers, and I was literally transformed in that, in that I came in with a crown of thorns and covered in blood and when I came out, I had a crown of flowers, and was cleaned up, and had been sort of transformed for the last part of the procession.
And that was extraordinary, being in, because I was lying there on this sort of raised platform, in the middle of the shopping centre, the open part of the shopping centre, and the idea was that this place would be, that the audience would be brought in in groups, to come through this shopping centre, and it had been transformed into a place of, where you heard running water and bells and gentle singing, and then when you came into the centre part, there would be this raised platform and surrounded by women wringing water out of, out of some sort of towel or cloth, into buckets, so you could just hear this water running, and around the upper level of the shopping centre there was bell ringers, and there was an opera singer, and there was a choir, and women would, the audience would be met by some women saying shh quiet, and they would bring them through, and you would sort of experience this.
And there on the top of this platform, surrounded by these women wringing water out of towels, I was lying on the top of the platform, and the, Di Botcher who played my mother in it, was, had a towel, and was cleaning the blood off me, and then handing that towel with blood to another woman, who was on the other side of me, and she would then hand that towel down to the women with the buckets and they would wash the towels, and so it was sort of never ending cleaning of the blood and the washing of the towels, and that was creating the sound of the water.
And, what was it, I just remember lying in there with my eyes closed and being aware that people were coming in, and hearing this beautiful sound of bells and singing and water, and there was a really strong sense of atmosphere in this place, and of course this was the shopping centre I used to eat my chips in, when I was having, in the lunch break at school, and my Slush Puppy, and you know, and, and it just had this extraordinary charge in it.
And so I remember lying there and hearing this water and hearing everything else, but also I heard these very, this quiet sobbing all he way through it. And it wasn’t Di who was playing my mother, Di Botcher, it was this other lady, on the other side, who she was handing the towel to. Because that other lady was my actual mother! [laughs]. My actual Mum. [pauses, overcome with emotion] And she was just, quietly sobbing, for the whole time. [another shaky pause]
So that was very powerful, that, that was a very powerful experience, for me personally. But the whole thing, and I remember Mercedes from Wildworks had worked with people in the community to create shrines, to, well these suitcases, that when you open them up, contained a shrine to someone, a sort of memory box to someone that they had lost, someone that was important to them. And there was this whole place where these shrines were inside the shopping centre as well.
Yeah that was incredible, absolutely incredible. And yes on the rest of [coughs] excuse me, on the rest of the procession, like I said it was baking hot that weekend, and that day I think was the hottest day, and so it wasn’t necessarily the best time to carry an incredibly heavy cross, I think it was seven miles, something ridiculous like that, through the town. And I had said from very early on that, because someone had said well we can just do a very light, like a balsa wood cross, and I was like no! This has to be authentic!
I mean this had been the thing that I knew, I kept thinking of it in my head as the Port Talbot test, that we were doing something that, you know, it was a theatrical performance but it was in this town, and it was with the town about about the town, and so even though Port Talbot has a tradition for producing actors, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins and all kinds of people, you know like Rob Brydon and myself and all the people who were taking part in the performance, it’s not a place that you’d expect people, actors to come from, it’s you know, it’s a tough place to grow up, you know it can be rough and it can be, and, and people are not gonna, it’s not the most, people do not tolerate pretensions [laughs] there.
And so I knew that in everything we did with this piece it had to kind of pass the test of would, will the people of this town, just the, you know, the absolute heart of this town, will they, can they connect to it, could this have meaning, or is it gonna be something that’s just like it’s just only it’s just a poncy show that Michael Sheen’s putting on.
And that was, so that was always at the back of my mind. And so part of that, I knew that I wanted everything to be as authentic as possible. I also wanted it to be something that as it went on over the three days of the performance, that I wanted the kind of lines between what was real and what wasn’t real, who was performing and who the audience was, all of those things, for the lines to blur very much, and that my sort of dream was that on the final day, there would be no difference between who was taking part in it and who was watching it.
That there was no difference, that everyone had ownership of it, and that the power of the end of it was that it wasn’t a performance any more, or if it was a performance, everyone was taking part in it, that it was just real, that it was, what was happening was what was happening, and that this was a story about the town, now, and that everyone was taking part in it.
And so, anyway, so part of that whole authenticity thing meant that I was, I wanted, I didn’t want to carry a cross that was any different to the cross I would be actually crucified on. There was a whole idea, there was a whole idea that I had that never did happen, that over the period of time, because like I say it was years that we developed it, that I would give blood every now and again, I would have blood taken, every now and again, and then we would keep that blood, and then the blood I was covered in, after the, after my character got beaten and tortured and stuff, that that would be my own blood, that I would be covered in my own blood. I was put off that idea for a number of reasons, [laughs] and rightfully so, but it just sort of wasn’t possible. But that was the kind of way I was thinking about it.
Anyway the cross was a heavy cross. So I carried this very heavy cross for miles and miles, it took hours and hours, on this procession, on possibly one of the hottest days of the year. [laughs]
And so I’ll never forget that. And I do remember as we were coming through the town we were passing, you know, people’s houses, and pubs and all, and it was, you know, people were out on the streets drinking, shirts off, men, you know, standing there covered in tattoos, who weren’t anything to do with the show, hadn’t come to see it, but they were just standing, they were standing there outside the pub drinking as we went past on the procession, and I’ll always remember hearing people outside the pubs shouting “Go on Michael! Go on Michael Sheen! Go on, you can do it!” [laughs] and that was an extraordinary thing! To hear that.
Yeah and then, getting down to, as we got closer and closer to the last bit of the journey, down at the beach, and I remember turning a corner, you could see where the crucifixion was gonna happen, on the roundabout down the end of this long road, with all these clothes hanging from the lampposts, as if people were crucified all the way along. I remember walking down this last part, and because it had been so hot, a lot of people had just come up to me whilst I was carrying the cross, and given me water to drink, which I was very thankful for.
In fact I think someone might have given me a Mars bar at one point as well, and an actual cup of tea! [laughs] Which I was very grateful for. But I’d drunk so much water that as we were coming down this last stretch, I realised I really needed a pee. And I thought that is gonna, this, the crucifixion is gonna go on for a while, this last, I can’t handle doing this last bit if I’m desperate for a pee, so I’m gonna need to pee.
And I realised that we were about to pass the last house. So along this long stretch of road that eventually leads to the roundabout where I was gonna be crucified, and that road is parallel to the actual beach and sea, there’s some housing, some apartments at the first part of it, and then that stops, and then it’s just road and there’s nothing either side really. So I realised oh my god if I’m gonna have a pee, I mean I can’t do it in front of people.
I’m gonna have to go into someone’s house. And so I, I remember seeing on this very last building, on a little balcony, there was a man and woman in their pyjamas and dressing gown with a child, and watching the procession going past from their little balcony, and I remember turning to the people who were either side of me who were playing my brothers and people like that, I remember saying, I need to go for a pee. You’re gonna have to go and ask those people if I can come in and have a pee. I’ll pretend to, if they say yes, I’ll pretend to collapse, and you’ll have to carry me in there, OK? And then I’ll go for a pee.
So [laughs], I think it was, who was it? I think it was, ah anyway, it was someone who was playing my brother, went off to ask them, and he came back, and he said yeah, they said it’s alright. So then I collapsed, and they carried me in to these people’s house, and the whole procession stopped. There were thousands and thousands of people. And bands and drummers and singers and all these people, and they all stopped. And there was much perturbation, about what had happened to me, and I was carried into this house.
And when I was in there, I said I thank you so much for letting me do this, and I went into the little sort of downstairs loo, and I could hear them outside, the husband and wife outside, and I heard the lady saying to her husband, “did you put fresh towels in there? Are there fresh towels in there for him?” and I heard the man say “don’t worry, it’ll be like the shroud of Turin!” [laughs] That did make me laugh.
Anyway I came out and then thanked them very much and then went back into the procession and carried on and off we went to be crucified.
And the other thing I really remember about that last night was that when it was finished, I had said to everyone, right when we finish, so the crucifixion happened on the roundabout, my body was brought down, then we did this sort of magic trick where I, without anyone knowing, I was able to kind of disappear back under the platform that the crucifixion happened on, get changed, reappear as the sort of John The Baptist figure, with a hood on, and you couldn’t see that it was me, with my staff, and we’d had, Nigel had been playing this character all the way through, he’d been living on the beach for a week, so people had seen him around the town, and then over the performance he was around all the time.
And so, he appeared on the stage, and, but it was me, and as I pulled my hood down, that was the final moment, that instead of saying it is finished, which was the kind of famous words that Jesus said on the cross, he said, “It has begun!” Boomf, and that was the end of the show, and it was revealed that it was me, and that was the kind of resurrection in a way I suppose.
And by the time we got to the, and the lights would go down, bang, out, and that was the end of the show. And I said to everybody, when that happens, you know it’ll be night time at that point, it’ll be dark, and when the lights go out it’ll be dark and I want everybody who’s taken part to go down the slip, there’s sort of a slipway that the lifeboats use at the beach, that was right behind where this roundabout was, and I said right, everybody go down the slipway, go as far down the beach towards the sea as you can, so that we’re as far away from the audience as possible, and we’ll meet up there, and then when everyone’s there, then we will wait until the audience have gone, and then we’ll come back. And then we’ll head down then back down to the production office, the Naval club down the other end of the beach together, and we’ll you know, debrief and all the rest of it.
So by that point, that Sunday night, because the weather had been so good, and because word had got out about what was happening, because of course it was impossible to really let people know exactly what was gonna, what it was. Nobody really understood what this performance was, people, I think people thought if anything that it was gonna be, we were gonna do the Passion play again that had been in Margam park.
And people kind of knew what that was. But they didn’t, nobody really knew what this was. So, as it was happening, and of course there was only one performance so it’s not like you could do the one, a performance and then it would be reviewed, and then people would come and watch it. There was only the one performance over three days.
So as the days went on, word of mouth, people would you know, get sort of saying there’s this sort of weird thing that’s happening, come and see it, and then it was being reported on in the news, in the papers, on TV, I remember hearing that it was being reported on in Australia and China, all around the world. And there were things going on on the radio, I remember Chris Evans talking about it on his radio show, as it was going on.
So word was getting out, and then reviews came out, on the Sunday I suppose, and it hadn’t even finished. And it was getting this extraordinary reaction from people. And so more and more people were coming down. So by that Sunday night with the crucifixion, down on the beach, I mean I still don’t know how many people were there, and it, you hear different numbers from different people, but there was, I mean there had to be, there had to be something like, I mean between ten thousand and, I, well I don’t know. Between ten and twenty thousand people just crammed around that area. I mean it was unbelievable.
Anyway. Finished, lights go down, go down the slip road, you know, like my plan was, we all headed down, as far down the beach as possible, and we, everyone was just, you know, hearts thumping. And and so, so much adrenaline, and that feeling of you know, it had happened, we’d done it, and it had been extraordinary, and everyone was just in this extreme state.
And I remember standing there, down, just all you could hear was the water of the sea, and it was pitch black, it was so dark, and just being, you know that feeling of being amongst a group of people and hearing people breathing, because we were staying quiet because we didn’t want to alert anyone that we were down there.
And that feeling of standing amongst like a sort of a, like a herd of animals just breathing, on the sand, by the water, in the dark. And so hyped up. And we were waiting for the audience to disperse, and they didn’t! [laughs] They didn’t go anywhere. I mean some people must have gone somewhere I guess, but there were still thousands of people there, and they just didn’t go, they were just sort of, they didn’t wanna leave.
And I remember thinking well we can’t go back. So I said right, look let’s walk down the beach, I mean it was like a good mile to the, where the production office was down the end of the beach. But I said let’s just keep walking until, until we’re far enough away from them that we can go back up the beach and up onto the road and the pavement and we can walk that way. So we start walking along the beach, and I remember thousands of people just, the audience, just started walking in parallel to us along the road! As if it was still part of the show, you know.
And so I’ll never forget that feeling of walking in the dark along the beach next to the sea, hearing the waves, with all of us just in this extreme state, and seeing, in silence really, thousands of people walking along the road as well, about, I don’t know, about a hundred yards, two hundred yards away from us. And then eventually they sort of dispersed and we, and we went into the production office, but that was an extraordinary thing.
And then in the days afterwards before I left the town, as I, if I was walking around I remember people coming up to me with their phones, and a woman coming up to me and saying, “um I’ve got my daughter on the phone, and she’s been very upset since Sunday night, because she thinks that Michael Sheen is dead, will you talk, will you talk to her and say that you’re Michael Sheen, and say that you’re alright please”.
So I had to do this a number of times with people, to sort of let their children know that I was alright. Yeah and there was this extraordinary thing really afterwards where, in the same way as the audience didn’t wanna leave, at the end of the performance, people who had taken part in it, didn’t want it to end either, and wanted, not necessarily the performance to carry on but the kind of galvanising force of what had happened, the bringing together of people, the coming together of the community, the acknowledgement of place and of what was important to people and what had been lost, and the hopes for the future, and that sense of just connectedness that had come out of it, they wanted that to continue.
And that was a very strong sense that I had afterwards, of how much people were galvanised into starting their own things, and wanting to do, you know, start up their own projects and ventures, and to get more involved with what was going on, and that was the thing that, for all the planning we had done and all the talking we had done and all the coming up with ideas for the performance, we had never really thought about what happened afterwards.
And I hadn’t thought really at all beyond trying to put this thing on and make it work. And there was a bit of thought about what we could do the next day, and that kind of stuff. But not really, well I had no idea that people would be affected in that way and would want to keep things moving forward, and that maybe I, I had, could have had a part to play in that and I didn’t, and I always regret that.
And I suppose in some ways that’s, you know, I’ve, I now live back there, and am involved in all kinds of things that I’m trying to do there, to sort of create opportunities and support people there and stuff, and I suppose part of that is because of, because I didn’t plan for what I could have done afterwards.
And realising how much desire there was to keep things moving forward there, on the back of what had happened during that performance. So, I suppose that’s what I’m still doing now. I’ve moved backed to the area, I live there now. I, over the period of time since The Passion, I became more and more involved with different groups and organisations in the area, and, and had a stronger sense of I suppose the connection on a more large scale of why certain things had been lost in the area, why people had the challenges and difficulties they faced, and that started to kind of build a growing awareness, a political awareness and a social awareness for me.
And it led eventually to me moving back and deciding that I was going to use my acting career and the resources I was able to get through that, in order to support, to support doing more of this kind of community work I suppose, for want of a better word. And that that would become the priority for me, rather than the acting work, that the acting would support that. And that’s all as a result of working on The Passion, and so it literally changed my life, and I’m still living through those changes.