Port Talbot in South Wales is perhaps not the most apparent location for the setting of a passion play, but the heart and soul of this incredible film production is soundly based on the community of Port Talbot itself.
Today, Port Talbot is an unglamorous place; heavy industry has raped its landscape and the town is unsympathetically sliced in two by the M4 motorway that runs right over it. Port Talbot cowers beneath a road and is dwarfed by structures that engulf it. There are mile upon mile of chemical companies with their flames illuminating the night sky and the air has an acrid stench that stays in the mouth.
To the north is mountainous terrain and to the south is the endless sprawl of white sand that is Aberavon beach. Sandwiched between, beached like a whale Port Talbot lies like an ugly monster, dead and decaying.
It’s not the sort of place a tourist may stop for a cup of tea, better to put your foot on the accelerator and speed right past it. Port Talbot appears unloved, a place destroyed by industrialists and corporate development, a community that yearns for the past, unencumbered by the complications of the present.
The film production of Gospel of Us is co-directed by local boy and internationally renowned actor Michael Sheen and includes a cast of thousands, and was shown at City Screen, York. A British film drama based on a novel of the same name by Owen Sheers and the three day passion play Sheen performed in April 2011 in Port Talbot. The 2012 film stars Michael Sheen as The Teacher, a man who has lost all memory of who he is and of the danger his town is facing from a company, ICU. Owen Sheers familiar tale tells of a town in turmoil from the threatening and coldblooded corporation, ICU, who see profit not people in their remorseless pursuit of the town’s resources. Sheen as The Teacher gathers followers around him and becomes the focus for the Resistance. ICU sees The Teacher as a threat, to be removed at all costs.
The film is a visual delight, directed by the creative genius Dave McKean, an English illustrator, photographer, comic book artist, graphic designer, filmmaker and musician. The brilliant abstract imagery is indeed a titillation of the senses with angels astride burning bicycles, luminous ghosts, shrines to lost futures, snipers hovering ominously on the roof of the shopping precinct.
What is incredible about the production is its sheer ambition, being so much more than just a heroic piece of street theatre. Dave McKean also wrote the film soundtrack which itself is an inspired and evocative piece of work. Many of the performances are by local people and an innate consciousness imbues the production with sensitivity from the memories of those people involved. There is the odd intervention from local boys the Manic Street Preachers and the singer Paul Potts.
The Gospel of Us is based on The Gospel of St Mark; however the entire thing is given a distinct twist. The Last Supper is in a seaside Social Club, the garden of Gethsemane being a patch of housing estate grass. The film can be challenging but ultimately it rewards the audiences’ patience by engaging all in the journey.
Ultimately The Teacher is seen as a symbol of freedom to the whole town. With his memory restored, The Teacher begins to cry out about all of the memories of the town until the skyline is lit with a burst of light and the entire town is brought back to life with old memories.
The Gospel of Us is communal invention at its very best. The film is like witnessing shared liberation and the public discover their voice through the collective act of creation. Whatever perceived reality in the production, whether factual, narrative, fable, memory, gossip, or reality, it is gloriously clear for all to see the collective joy Port Talbot experienced making this production.
The Gospel of Us is thought-provoking and inspiring – Port Talbot’s future beginning immediately The Passion ends.
The Gospel of Us is showing at York City Screen on Sunday 5 August in conjunction with York Mystery Plays.