When a writer of the calibre of Owen Sheers decides to write a story around the Passion, then you know that you are in for a treat. The Gospel of Us began as a Passion Play set in Port Talbot, performed by Michael Sheen, produced by Lucy Davies of the National Theatre of Wales, and written by Owen Sheers himself. It is a story of ordinary people getting caught up in events that they do not fully understand, and which have a profound effect upon them. It is not a religious story, and very definitely not a religiouse one. It is a story about the impact that one person, and the events of that person’s life, can have a profound effect upon the people around.
The tale begins with a man considering how he is going to tell this story. And that is why he thinks of the way that his grandfather used to hook his audience, licking his finger and saying “God’shonesttruth”,and how the men. sipping at their pints, listen to the story. And in such a way does the story of the Stranger begin and, like the men in the pub, we are transfixed by the story.
It is a story of bewilderment. There is a man washed up on a beach in Port Talbot. There is a mother searching for her son who has been missing for forty days and forty nights. There are onlookers bemused by what they are seeing. There are the company men who are trying to make sure that the situation is kept under control.
The story unfolds over the three days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It is a story that we are all familiar with. Or at least those of us who were born into a culture that is steeped in the Christian tradition. But it is not the story that we know. Nor is it the story that we are expecting. After all, who expects the Passion to take place in Port Talbot? In a de-industrialised town in South Wales? To be honest, no-one expects anything significant to take place in such a setting.
And that is the view that Owen Sheers challenges, subverts, destroys. Because where people live, significant things do happen. And this book is a praise poem (an awdl in Welsh) to the lives and achievements of ordinary people. This story, set in Wales and told by a Welshman, is of a universal significance. Which is not surprising, considering the source material. It is also a story told through a love of words, a beauty of expression, a carefulness of phrasing that readers have come to expect from any book by Owen Sheers.
This is a masterpiece to set alongside Under Milk Wood or the poetry of George Herbert or John Donne. If you do not read this book, the loss is yours.