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Literary, theatrical England

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By John Masters

Meridian Writers’ Group

PORTHCURNO, England—On a blustery cliff on Cornwall’s south coast is a folly grown from a garden.

In 1929 Miss Rowena Cade, 35, saw a travelling band of players perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream near her home in Porthcurno. It so impressed her that she offered her garden for a future performance of The Tempest .

Alas, the garden, part way down the cliff face on Minack Point, was too small. Undeterred, Miss Cade hauled up sand and stone from the beach, levelled a terrace and, with the help of villagers, cut seats into the rock. The Tempest went on, with the properly moody English Channel as a backdrop, and everyone said she must do another, so she did.

And then another and another. Each winter she would add something to her amphitheatre and every summer there’d be more plays. This went on for 50 years, until 1983 when Rowena Cade died at age 89. By then she’d created a performance space that, from some angles, looks classically Greek and from others as if the Flintstones built it.

And her folly was attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year, to see plays or just to wander about the remarkable construction. A small exhibition centre was added in 1986 (opened by Michael York, who played Romeo here in 1964), and later a restaurant and gift shop.

Phil Jackson, the Minack’s artistic director, now runs a 17-week season (from May to September) with 17 plays performed by British and international troupes. Miss Cade’s theatre has grown to 750 seats.

“There are a lot of companies that want to perform here,” says Jackson. The unique site offers directors plenty of opportunity for innovation, and the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below and the changing weather of the broad sea vista add emotion to a production.

Plays like The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular benefit from the dramatic setting, but the Minack’s bill of fare ranges from King Lear to Oklahoma . “Every year we do a couple of Shakespeares, one opera, a couple of musicals and a comedy,” says Jackson.

More than 75,000 attend a play at the Minack annually, bringing blankets and, if they like, renting cushions to sit on. Jackson monitors several Internet weather sites, and if it’s raining at 7 p.m. he’ll cancel the night’s 8 p.m. show — but he only has to do that two or three times a season.

Sometimes, though, the weather gods decide to have a little fun. Jackson recalls a performance of South Pacific back in the 1990s that started under fair skies, but rapidly changed. “We could see a storm coming across the water,” he says. “The performance went on and the cast continued, even as the rain began to fall in earnest, then in torrents.”

Then lightning hit the headland. Jackson was on the microphone, telling the audience it was time to leave when the bolt struck. “I was knocked backwards against the rock. That was memorable.”

As for the audience, “they were soaked, but they loved it.”

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Minack Theatre visit its website at www.minack.com . (Two web cams regularly update images of the site.)

For information on travel in Britain go to the Visit Britain website at www.visitbritain.com .

 

 

 

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