In 1929 some amateur Porthcurno drama enthusiasts put on a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a local field. It turned out to be a great success and a couple of years later they wanted to try again with The Tempest.
Obviously, a field wasn’t the best venue for a drama company to perform, but one of the production team was a lady called Rowena Cade who lived in Minack House at Minack Point.
Minack is Cornish for ‘Rocky Place’, and this indomitable lady, along with her gardener Billy Rawlings, set about transforming the rocks below her garden into an open-air amphitheatre right on the edge of the cliffs.
During the winter of 1931/32 they moved granite boulders and earth to create a stage and terraces. What’s even more remarkable is that the steps, walkways, seats and pillars were all made out of concrete made with sand from the beach below. Why I say ‘remarkable’ is because anybody who has ever walked up or down the cliff from Minack to the beach will know how steep a climb it is – and yet this lady did this day in and day out carrying buckets of sand to create this quite unbelievable place – and in August 1932 The Tempest was performed at the Minack.
This month (September 2018) we came to see the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s performance of The Pirates of Penzance, and we enjoyed a ’tempest’ of our own.
When we booked we had visions of a balmy late summer’s evening watching the show with maybe seals or dolphins frolicking around in the sea below: Instead we had lashing rain and waves crashing over the rocks, but with stiff upper lip the cast played on – and if they could stick it out, then so could we – and we managed to have a picnic under our ponchos as well. I’ve heard of water being turned into wine, but my wine was turned into water which wasn’t quite how it was supposed to be.
In all honesty, I really enjoyed the experience, and I think the people around us enjoyed theirs too judging from the laughter at us trying to put our ponchos on without losing them to the elements – but we had the last laugh because they left early soaking wet.
It’s incredible how they’re able to put on a show in these conditions. The lighting and sound system never faltered, which is a long way from the days when car headlights were used to illuminate the stage and a weak power supply was brought down from Minack House.
During World War II Porthcurno was a potential landing place for a German invasion, not to mention the importance of it being a hub for telecommunications, and so the theatre had to be closed down, surrounded by barbed wire and reinforced with fortifications.
When the theatre reopened in 1949 a pill box was used as the ticket office until the café and shop were built in 1997.
Facilities are much improved these days of course but the ideas of Rowena Cade are still very much adhered to, and it has to be said that the general public get pretty good value for money overall.
Tropical gardens have been added to the clifftop terraces and there’s a free exhibition about the remarkable lady as well.
Performances run from Easter to September with both matinee and evening performances for a variety of shows on offer, but the theatre is open to visitors outside of these times every day of the year except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
It has to be said that the theatre is a very popular summer destination and it’s advisable to book a performance in advance. Also take into account that the narrow roads in this part of the world weren’t made for traffic, so do make sure you allow plenty of time to get here – better still, why not stay overnight and enjoy the theatre, Porthcurno, and the surrounding area at leisure – just as it should be.