Coming into his own

Coming into his own

passion play

Coming into his own

Theatrical : Michael SheenMichael Sheen has made a career of portraying famous people: on-screen, he has played the former British prime minister Tony Blair and the British comic actor Kenneth Williams; onstage, he played the interviewer David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Mozart in Amadeus, in which his performances were highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.

So how do you top repeated acclaim for a protean ability to reinvent afresh people who have actually lived (or, in several cases, are very much still alive)? If you’re Sheen, 42, you do a fresh take on the Lenten tradition of the Passion Play in Wales, where he grew up, a challenge that requires spiritual empathy, not just a bravura talent for assuming someone else’s guise.

And in the fall, the actor is returning to the London stage to take on arguably the defining work of the theatrical imagination, Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It’s as if, having got under the skin of one real-life person after another, Sheen now wants to put before audiences something of his actual self.

“I’m not a Tony Blair impersonator,” Sheen said recently. Dressed in a Passion T-shirt, casual trousers and work boots, he was tucked away in a London television centre, where he was spending the day before returning to his hometown of Port Talbot, Wales, to attend rehearsals for a venture that has kept him occupied for almost two years.

He said he did three stories about Blair, “because I thought they were interesting.” “But it wasn’t about that one person,” he added, “The Deal wasn’t about Tony Blair, The Queen wasn’t about Tony Blair, and The Special Relationship wasn’t about Tony Blair.

They were interesting stories because of what they had to say about our culture and our society and our country and our systems within it.”

One gets the impression that Sheen is on some level resisting the kudos he has garnered over time for one or another virtuosic transformation.

“There’s a frustration,” he said, “of feeling just generally that I myself, like quite a lot of other people, get too dazzled by what’s on the surface.”

He elaborated on the shift in his thinking. “It’s probably to do, I would imagine, with not feeling like I have to show what a good actor I am, which I think as a younger actor I would have done. It would have been about the facility and the fireworks, but I don’t need to do that now. That’s not to say those qualities don’t need to be there — they do — but the guiding principle needs to be something else.”

“The real work is invisible,” he said. “The real work is what doesn’t get commented on.”
Rise as an actor

Writer and director David Lan first worked with the actor during the mid-1990s on the workshop of an adaptation of the Euripides’ play Ion. Lan then cast Sheen as the male lead in his 1996 play, The Ends of the Earth, at the National Theatre, before moving over
to run the Young Vic Theatre.  “I’m guessing that what Michael is feeling is that there is a huge vein of emotional strength and capacity that’s available to him where he now wants to go to,” Lan said. “Ironically, because he’s played everybody else, he really knows who he is; he’s a mature, adult man with a big personality, a big confidence,” he adds.

Both those qualities were called upon for the secular re-telling of the Passion. 

Co-directed by Bill Mitchell and Sheen, the production was extended over all three days of the Easter weekend. Encompassing 10 episodes taking place in various public places and civic centres around the town and nearby, the Port Talbot Passion was the defining event to date in the year-old National Theatre Wales, an enterprise that operates without a building by contrast with, say, the National Theatre in London, which has three stages.

Sheen’s character is known simply as The Teacher, eschewing religious nomenclature, a choice the actor expanded upon.  “There aren’t a lot of people in Port Talbot called Jesus, as far as I’m aware, so it wouldn’t make a huge amount of sense,” Sheen said, smiling.

“I’m not a Christian,” he said, preferring what he calls a more “mythic” reading of the story that, yes, does involve both a cross and a resurrection.

Lucy Davies, executive producer for National Theatre Wales, first worked with  Sheen 14 years ago when he directed a play called Badfinger at London’s Donmar Warehouse. At the Donmar, he later appeared as the TV personality David Frost in the Peter Morgan play Frost/Nixon, which transferred to Broadway and was made into a movie.

“I think some actors reach that career progression moment when they want more autonomy and to express themselves not through someone else’s vision, but their own,” Davies said of Sheen’s commitment to Passion.

For the project Sheen  forsaked his Los Angeles base — home to his daughter Lily, 12, with the actress Kate Beckinsale — to revisit his roots. The industrial, economically depressed environs of Port Talbot (population 35,000) exist at an extreme remove from Hollywood, where he has been appearing in the Twilight vampire screen saga. He is due to film the latest one this year.

“I’ve always wanted to do a large-scale piece in my town using lots of different locations and telling a story about the town that is really the story of us,” Sheen said.

Speaking of Port Talbot, where his parents and sister still live and which is best known to many as the birthplace of both Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, Sheen spoke of the potential power of the play within a populace that, he said, “has been very, very exploited by industry and by commerce and by a community torn apart in different ways.”

“The more specific and localised the story is, I hope the more relevance and resonance it will have for anyone outside the town as well,” he said.

What, then, of next fall’s Hamlet, which is as familiar a title as this redefinition of the Passion is an unknown quantity? Sheen spoke of craving a more profound connection to the material beyond ready-made theatrical fireworks. “What I’ve felt about the Hamlets I have seen, even ones I thought were very, very good — and it must be something that’s very difficult to get to — is some kind of spirituality and a connection to something much, much greater.”