Saturday, May 07, 2011
the passion | national theatre wales | michael sheen
by Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
May 9, 2011
Just another Saturday night at the Seaside Social and Labour Club. Downstairs, men playing pool and snooker, with soccer on a large TV. Upstairs, a ritzier room, with the lights low, and a glitter ball turning overhead. A couple of hundred people sit at tables, with snacks on paper plates. Lines form at the bar. A sweating m.c. in a tuxedo walks onstage with a microphone to welcome the crowd. A pianist plays standards from the cheesy end of the nineteen-seventies: “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie,” “Live and Let Die.”
This is Port Talbot, on the south coast of Wales: a tough, unbeautiful place, sliced by the freeway that runs all the way to London. From that road, the first thing you see is a tall pipe with a single flame, which burns above the glare of the steelworks. To anyone who thinks of Britain as a place of royal weddings, and of those who attend them, the streets around the Social and Labour Club would come as a shock. Tonight, residents have gathered in the adjoining car park, with a merry but apprehensive air. Inside, the m.c. declares, with sadness, that the club will be closing down. Calls of defiance greet this announcement, not least from a bunch of drinkers on a dais at the side of the room. One of them, a tall fellow with curly hair and a beard, taking sips from his pint of beer, looks familiar. When a tray of sandwiches is brought to his table, he tears each one in half and hands a chunk, in turn, to each of his mates. The room goes still.
At last, with a flourish, the m.c. brings on what he calls “the house band.” This is a joke, because the curtains part to reveal the Manic Street Preachers—local lads, formed not far away, in Blackwood, but one of the great bands of the age, with fans around the world. They rip into a three-song set and lash the place into a rampage, and then, as the final number fades, the doors are flung wide, to reveal a squad of cops. Not just any cops, but riot police, some armed with rifles. The Manics—as they are fondly known—are arrested and marched out. The mood brims with anger and complaint, but subsides as another band takes over. Soon, the joint is jumping again, with the bearded guy, grinning broadly, in the role of jumper-in-chief. Yes, sir, he can boogie.
Next, everybody troops outside, and there he is again, perched alone on a dumpster. Hooded kids race around him on bikes, with wheels on fire. His friends have fallen asleep on the curb. For a while, he talks to an older man, who is stationed on scaffolding nearby. Then the police turn up again; clearly, they have some grievance against the bearded guy. Trouble seems to dog him. This time, they haul him away, as they did the Manics, and stand him in the bed of a truck. The locals take his side and cry out, but to no effect. The head of police pummels him with questions. “What are you?” he asks. “Are you a king?” The guy says nothing, which only inflames the cops. They bundle him into the back of a car, and leave. He will spend the night in a police cell. He is tired, having spent the previous night on a mountain, but he needs the sleep. Tomorrow, he is due to be crucified.
The bearded guy is the bright-eyed Michael Sheen, best known for playing Tony Blair, in “The Queen,” and David Frost, in “Frost/Nixon.” He grew up in Port Talbot, as did Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. It must be something in the steel. This evening is a chapter in “The Passion,” a theatrical event conceived by the National Theatre Wales and a company called WildWorks. Sheen is the star and creative director of the project, which is, in part, a tribute to his home town: just the kind of place, the production suggests, where Christ would come again. Not that Jesus, or even God, has earned a mention; Sheen’s character is known merely as the Teacher. The event stretches over three days, beginning down on the beach, where the Teacher appeared on Friday afternoon. Later, he stopped a suicide bombing. Tonight was the Last Supper. That is why the Social and Labour Club claimed to be shutting down. The sandwiches and beer were bread and wine. The dumpster was the Garden of Gethsemane. The man on the scaffolding was the Almighty. The crowd was not acting. On Sunday, the Teacher will be tried at the civic center, beaten up, led down Station Road, and raised on a cross beside the seafront. Thousands will follow.