Owen Sheers: The Gospel of Us, Seren Books, 2012.
I wanted to take part for the first time ever in the #ReadingWales (aka #Dewithon) reading event in March hosted by Paula the Book Jotter, in which book lovers from all parts of the world are encouraged to read, discuss and review literature by and about writers from Wales. I have a real soft spot for Wales and have often said that it would be the place I would move to if I were to remain in the UK. With its mountains and sheep, its love for poetry and music, but also poverty and mine closures, it reminds me a lot of the part of Romania where my parents come from. However, finding any books by Welsh authors at my local library was difficult, so it was a bit of a ‘whatever you have’ grope in the dark.
I stumbled into something very well known and highly regarded in Wales, apparently, with this ‘recital’ (I’m not sure if I should call it play, novel or poetry or all three). It was born out of an initiative between a Welsh actor Michael Sheen, a Welsh poet Owen Sheers and the National Theatre Wales producer Lucy Davies. They created a three-day passion play performed at Easter 2011 on the beach near Port Talbot. This was then adapted in 2012 into a film directed by David McKean, also starring Michael Sheen, and this book is the novelisation of the two.
It is a contemporary reimagining of the Passion in the rather dreary seaside town of Port Talbot, with one of the largest steelworks in the world, threatened with closure for decades, the M4 thundering above the town, and, unsurprisingly, the worst air pollution in Wales. The Christ role is taken by a man who went missing for forty days and suffers from amnesia when he reappears. The locals soon call him the Teacher and consider him a harmless fool, but they are fascinated by him nevertheless, especially when he defuses a rather tense terrorist situation.
This is no gentle retelling of stories from the Bible, but a powerful indictment of capitalism and local politics, as the suffering of a besieged community is made clear. The Company Man colludes with the Mayor to drive out the locals so that they can build another Passover road (they euphemistically call this ‘rehoming’). The story is told by a bystander who doesn’t quite know what to make of the events he has witnessed, but does his best to provide an accurate, poignant, often lyrical and drily witty account.
A ‘Pageant of Port Talbot’ it was called, something the Council dreamt up by way of entertainment to keep everyone occupied while we waited for the Company Man. It was shit. Bunch of am-dram types cranking through a series of tableaux about the history of the town. Or rather a history of the town, because I don’t remember seeing any scenes about the Passover being built above the rubble of my nan’s house, or the coughing we used to get after playing footie under the towers of the chemical works, or the brown bags of cash that signed this shore away for industry not the resort it could have been.
We wanted to hear the news, didn’t we? It was meant to be about our future after all… And that wasn’t a word often used about our town back then. It might have been in ICU’s slogan, but that was about the only time we ever saw it. We’d used to talk about our past once but even that seemed to have gone now; squeezed out by the roads, the works and the concrete. And how can you talk about a future without a past? Cleverest thing the Company ever did, that’s what my bampa used to say… Made us forget where we came from, so as to make us blind to where we’re going.
Some parts of the narrative stick very closely to the Bible (not recognising his mother, Peter’s denial, the judgement and crucifixion), while others provide an unexpected contemporary twist, but you don’t need to be of a religious persuasion to be moved by this tale. There is a lot of social critique in this snapshot of a declining community.
Yet only the Welsh, perhaps, with their tradition of thundering preachers and glorious hymns, the Welsh Revival of 1904, could make each scene feel so heavy with symbolism. The public judgement is particularly powerful, where the Teacher, who simply wants to listen to the truth, is deemed to be more dangerous than the anarchist terrorist Barry.
‘At least he’s fighting to protect something… To protect the town he knows. You, you’re more dangerous than that. You’re not protecting anything. You just want to break everything up.’ […]
‘But you need him, don’t you?’ the Teacher said. ‘And he needs you.’
The Company Man stared at him, incredulous. ‘Why would I need him?’
‘Because he challenges you, and that justifies what you do.’
‘And you don’t challenge me?’
‘No. I make you unnecessary.’
A really unusual, unexpected read, beautifully written – made to be read out loud, as so much of Welsh literature seems to be – and most appropriate in the run-up to Easter.
Here is a link to Owen Sheers reading some of his own poems and to one of his most famous poems, Mametz Wood.