CORNWALL in south England. Picturesque countryside by the coast. The town of Penzance sits around a small harbor and promenade. Further south is Land’s End and the surrounding countryside boasts of many sightseeing landmarks, but the jewel of the area is a little-known open-air theatre — The Minack Theatre. One approaches it by going along the undulating road and finally reaches the top of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean stretching, endlessly until it meets the horizon. Both sides of the large cliff running alongside remind one of a humongous Sphinx of stone that straddles the sea. Huge strong boulders and sheer rock. The scene is, one of pure nature and stillness. However. a short walk down from the top of the steps reveals the theatre nestled in the bosom of the cliff.
From above it looks as if some wandering Greeks had carved a theatre in the granite cliff some aeons ago. The circles of stone seem to be made for ancient rhetoric and the broad stone table with a base of arches reminds one of amphorae filled with wine, dishes of fruit piled high with grapes and pomegranates and of ancient actors in togas and robes. The semi-circle of seats cut one above the other as steps into the cliff also add to its classic amphitheatre look. The truth is that 50 years ago there was nothing except a sloping gully of heather and granite and the sea, and it formed a part of the garden of a Miss Rowena Cade. Minack is the name of the black headed rock mass, famous for fishing. below and to the east of the stage. It is known that there was a Celtic foundation of monks at the nearby village of St. Buryan and in all likelihood, they came to fish here. Perhaps also the imaginative Cornish people of those days saw some resemblance in the rocks shape to their cowled heads and called the rock ‘Managh’ and time has changed it to Minack over the years.
The Minack Threatre has a long and interesting history. It all started in 1929 when a village company of mostly local actors staged Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. For an arena they chose a curving slope of meadow above a streamlined with elm, sycamore and willow, not far from the present theatre’s location. The play went well in its natural setting. They decided that the following year they would do ‘The Tempest’ in the cliff garden of Miss Cade. No part of the garden was really suitable for a stage and there was nowhere to seat an audience, so Miss Cade decided to build another terrace next to her own cliff garden and it is here that the theatre stands today.
Three people made the stage and rough seating. William Rawlings. Charles Thomas Angove and the indefatigable Miss Cade and it took them six winter months. Their raw material could be no more than what was on the cliff, so it could.be seen that every movable particle would be precious. They made a terrace faced with granite where the grass slope ended and dropped sheer into the deep zawn below. The hand cut granite was carefully inched into place with bars on the tricky muddy slope above the drop. losing very few stones and no men overboard. Filling of earth and small stones to keep pace with the stone courses was done by shoveling it from the higher ledges of the cliff. Very little of this was lost, but there is a record of one barrel that got away”.
A roughly level terrace was thus obtained, a few tiers of seats built up with dry walling and turf on the slope above. A small orchestra platform was made to the left, while actors waited in the wings of granite and changed in a wooden shelter. Power came feebly from batteries and the connection from Miss Cade’s house.
It is the summer of 1981; I have fulfilled a dream I had of visiting the theatre when I had seen and read about it as a child in a National Geographic article. In the clear morning air. the seagulls circled over the theatre and the crashing waves spewed their spray high. A theatre group is rehearsing of all the plays —”The Pirates of Penzance’. I watch for a while drinking it all in, atmosphere, actors and the crisp early sea breeze, promising myself I would return.
Over the years people were so gripped and moved by the beauty of the cliff at night and with that the added enjoyment of great poetry and live music that the theatre was not allowed to revert to cliff or gardens and between 1933 and 1939 a play was produced every two years. Local amateurs slowly gave way to some visiting groups as well. During the war, the actors were scattered, some never to return. Wreaths of barbed wire were draped through the theatre and an anti-aircraft gun post, (which has now been converted to the box offices) built at the top of the cliff. Miss Cade, however, still kept the grass cut, getting herself and the machine entangled in the wires as often as possible. After the war it was not until 1949 that the place was sufficiently restored with a new balustrade and some broken columns to a performance of “The Trojan Women” by two local schools.
Cut of the present. My wife and I make a special trip to Penzance so I can show her this theatre. We head for a performance of Stephan Sondheim’s ‘ A Little Night Music.” Seated in the high balcony, we picnic under the clear summer sky as the lighthearted musical starts. Explains Sondheim of the play — “I usually love to write in dark colors about basic gut feelings, but the director has a sense of audience I sometime lose. he wanted the darkness to peep through the whipped cream surface. Whipped cream and knives.” The play is a comedy on liaisons and set in Sweden in the early 1920s. It also has the famous song “Send in the Clowns” that was made a popular hit in England by Judy Collins and followed up by Frank Sinatra in the U.S.
Huge strong boulders and sheer rock. The scene is one
of pure nature and stillness. However, a short walk
down from the top of the steps reveals a theatre
nestled in the bosom of a cliff RANVIR SHAH on a
unique, open air theatre in England.
Suddenly the eccentric English weather turns. Thunder, cumulonimbus clouds and a downpour. We snuggle under rented blankets with an umbrella over our heads sipping burning hot coffee and getting thoroughly idrenched. On stage, the actors playing smaller roles bring cloaks for the major players and stand behind them with umbrellas as they belt out their lines. The show does go on. “A Little Night Music” — becomes an experience of a lifetime transporting us back to a special world of carefree childhood. As we feel the magic of nature after the rain stops and the sky clears, I am reminded of William Golding’s phrase “We are but children of the stars.”
In the early embryonic years any profits made were mostly donated to good causes that Miss Cade had a particular interest in. Over several years the facilities at the theatre grew with funding from various theatre groups and corporate sponsors. Seats were increased to seat 600 people in reasonable comfort, with a result that in the summer season when the theatre opens nearly 25.000 people come to see the plays. Improvements for safety were made and for the players an installation of a comprehensive lighting system and a versatile sound system fixed allowing the audio engineers to take full advantage of the setting for sound effects and music.
At almost any time of the year a visitor would, until recent times have seen in the theatre a figure bent over a step or a half-finished concrete seat or carrying a load of sand. It would have been the spare and wiry figure of Rowena Cade working still on this theatre, which she herself thought out and planned and then made gradually over the years with her calloused, determined and creative hands.
In 1983, before the summer season, she passed away. A trust runs the theatre and looks after its upkeep. Recently the Rowena Cade Exhibition Centre has been opened which uses photographs, design work, models and audio-visual techniques to tell the story of this lady and the theatre she created. A. J. Buff n, a visitor describes his experience in a poem: “What joy to watch, through Summer eve. the company their tale unfolds, with action framed by scudding cloud and weathered crag, the backdrop held by sea and sky that merge, as Night her mantle spreads. in velvet gloom. The distant sound of restless surf, the mournful page by ship unseen, and to a sense of magic felt.”