Arts feature

Made in Port Talbot

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

Port Talbot, on the coast of South Wales, is literally overlooked. Most experience the town while flying over it on the M4, held aloft by concrete stilts planted in terraced streets. From that four-lane gantry, the only landmarks are the dockyard cranes and belching steelworks.

Over Easter in 2011, National Theatre Wales staged a piece of street theatre that was crafted as a civic resurrection. The Passion of Port Talbot featured Michael Sheen as a Messiah-like teacher who harkens to oral memories. ‘I remember!’ he hollered on the third day, while attached to a crucifix on a traffic island by Aberavon beach, before reeling off a litany of local names: of villages, streets, sweet shops, pubs, clubs, mountains.

The sense of Port Talbot as an evanescence is in the blood of the place. I once asked Anthony Hopkins if he ever goes back. ‘On Google Earth I’m always going back to Bracken Road,’ he said. ‘Press a button and you’re outside the house where you’re born.’ Recently, Sheen made Port Talbot Paradiso, a nostalgic documentary for Radio 4 about the art-deco Plaza cinema, long since closed, where he, Rob Brydon and opera singer Rebecca Evans first caught sight of the wide world on the big screen.

Sheen, Hopkins and Richard Burton form a remarkable trifecta of Port Talbot boys who fetched up in Hollywood. The town’s only other produce is steel, the story of which has brought NTW back to Port Talbot for a new play called We’re Still Here. The steelworks are the last bastion of heavy industry in Wales. In 2015 they were threatened with closure by the Indian conglomerate Tata Steel. More than 4,000 jobs would have gone. The promise of five years’ investment was brokered, thanks largely to the Save Our Steel campaign led by workers.

NTW commissioned We’re Still Here, which will be performed in a derelict former tinworks by Common Wealth, a young company committed to telling working-class stories. ‘The thrust of our story is not just Save Our Steel,’ says Rhiannon White, one of its co-directors who was brought up on a Cardiff sink estate. ‘It’s about how we pass on this way of fighting and challenging a stigma and being proud of who we are, and knowing that we’re not just disposable as working-class people.’

It may help that this story about men is being created by women. The playwright marshalling the verbatim research material is Rachel Trezise, whose father and grandfather worked in the steel plant. ‘There were a couple of interviews where they really opened up and were actually crying. I don’t think that would have happened if we had been a male team.’

At the heart of the research material is a community’s fear of becoming, like other post-industrial towns, a spectral irrelevance. Trezise is under no illusion about the endgame: ‘Those steelworks will go.’ And when they do, its laid-off workers will not be prepared for the dog-eat-dog nature of other professions. ‘People coming out of the steelworks now going for jobs like selling insurance and call centres say, “You are working against your colleagues.” They are used to the camaraderie of 20 men working towards the same goal.’

The parallels between heavy industry and acting — each rooted in collaboration — should never be overplayed. Perhaps Port Talbot is the one place where it is overt. The Passion, which involved 1,500 volunteer performers, is still a mainstay of civic pride in a place that keeps on producing actors. Several appear in Bang, a lively and well-crafted new ten-part crime drama on S4C set in the locality.

The Welsh-language channel is an infrequent visitor to mainly monoglot Port Talbot, although the language is commonly spoken along the Afan valley. Scriptwriter Roger Williams describes a typical encounter during filming: ‘People would come up and say, “What are you doing here then? I don’t watch Welsh TV.” We’d say, “Give this a go then?”’ There’s ample reason to get stuck into a taut plot about a family in crisis when a policewoman’s brother is asked to harbour a gun. S4C have already had a huge international hit with Hinterland, the crime drama set in Aberystwyth and shot in Welsh and English versions. ‘We were told that if you want to sell drama outside Wales you need to do a detective series and do something in English,’ explains Gethin Scourfield, who produced Hinterland and is now acting drama commissioner at S4C. ‘The idea came up to reflect the bilingual element of life in Wales. Bang takes that a step further.’

Bang is a co-production between Welsh company Joio and London-based Artists Studio. Each episode on S4C will first be broadcast without subtitles, which are available on the red button and burned in for subsequent transmissions. True to reality, some characters speak only English and others hop between the two languages within the same sentence. One line of dialogue refers to newbies in the street, including a brother in trouble with the police: ‘Neighbours newydd. Mae’r brawd yn regular yn y station. Fighto, shoplifto.’

‘We’re certainly not linguistic purists,’ says Scourfield. ‘We’re here to make sure that the language is seen as a modern living language, and the way Welsh is spoken in places like Port Talbot is going to be very different from west Wales.’

Port Talbot wasn’t the original location for Bang when Williams, who lives in Neath, conceived it in 2015. One day he was walking on the strand at Aberavon. ‘I looked up and saw the three cranes in the distance with the steelworks behind. It was such a beautiful day. I thought, I don’t think anybody has ever set a drama here.’ The opening scene — a flashback to a murder — takes place on the same beach.

There are plenty of local actors on tap to populate the story. During the shoot Michael Sheen was recceing in the old magistrate’s court where Bang had set up a production office. Spotting the cast mugshots on a wall, ‘He started naming all these actors who had grown up in Port Talbot,’ says Williams.

Why does Port Talbot produce actors? Scourfield, who was taught Sunday school in Welsh by Richard Burton’s sister up the valley in Pontrhydyfen, has a theory: ‘With the combination of a strong cultural identity and new people moving in, you have a creative friction.’ The latest addition to that roll of honour is Sam Coombes, a Port Talbot steelworker who has been given time off by Tata Steel to play one of the half-dozen roles in We’re Still Here. I ask Trezise how he’s coming along in rehearsals. She pauses. ‘Lots of potential.’

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