Second coming: Sheen preaches gospel of the arts in Port Talbot

  • @MrNickClark

In these austere times, it won't only be residents of Port Talbot who recognise the description of "a town with low self-esteem" where it "felt like there was little going on". But not every industrial town has a son like Michael Sheen to do something about it.

A year ago this weekend, the actor returned to the place he grew up – an industrial town that "had a lot to deal with" – to organise an Easter such as Port Talbot had never seen before.

Over 72 hours, the town was transformed into a living version of The Passion, as Sheen led a cast of 15 professional actors and over 1,000 locals in a three-day performance that used a beach, a social club and the streets in lieu of a stage.

The result was, he told The Independent this week, "something very, very powerful". Not every town has a Michael Sheen, but every community, he is now convinced, can follow Port Talbot's lead, using the arts as a means of celebrating its home.

"Every town should do it," said the actor, who recently starred in the Oscar-nominated Midnight in Paris. "It would be wonderful if people took the spirit of our project and did their own thing. It celebrates individual communities, and would be the opposite to the homogenisation of art and culture."

Port Talbot has a remarkable track record of producing world-famous actors. It was once home not only to Sheen, but to Sir Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton. But there has not been so much stardust in recent years. Unemployment in the town has been higher than the Welsh average as traditional heavy industries and mining have declined, and the recession has hit the region particularly hard. Economic figures published last month showed that west Wales was the poorest area in the UK, but communities around Britain will recognise the picture.

All the more reason to give people an outlet. "There is huge creative potential in every town," Sheen said. "The Passion was about trying to access that in Port Talbot and channel it."

His idea for The Passion came after a visit to Oberammergau, a village in Germany where the residents have performed a passion play since 1634.

It was a modern-dress reworking of the story of the crucifixion of Christ, which included a baptism at Aberavon beach and a "Last Supper" at a social club where Sheen's Christ-like figure the Teacher ate sandwiches and drank beer while the Manic Street Preachers played.

This Easter, Sheen is returning to Port Talbot to attend an exhibition at which residents will gather to share stories and memories of the performance. The premiere of a film of the performance and called The Gospel of Us will be shown at the town's Apollo Cinema tomorrow. Locals have told Sheen the event has changed the town, and things have started up as a result, including more cultural events and the refurbishment of various sites.

Canon Nigel Cahill said that even the mood of Port Talbot has changed: "Everyone has stopped being negative," he told the BBC. "It is as if they have been allowed to vent their negativity."

It is all, in a way, quite Big Society. "I wanted people coming together as a community to reflect what was most important about their lives," Sheen said. "By celebrating one particular community it celebrated the concept of community. As they came together, something mysterious happened that was bigger than everyone there."