Magazine article The Spectator

Why Does Port Talbot Produce Great Actors?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Does Port Talbot Produce Great Actors?

Article excerpt

Why, as well as steel, does the Welsh town produce great actors? Jasper Rees reports

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. …

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