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.