Monday, July 09, 2007

Love's Labour's Kept

A Roman amphitheater on the Cornish coast? Nay, the foresight and hard work of theater-founder Rowena Cade (1893-1983).

In the southernmost tip of England, amidst Arthurian legends, the Eden Project and a town called Mousehole, is the tiny village of Porthcurno, home to one of Cornwall's most unusual attractions (and, quite understandably, one of Britain's 'top 10 places to propose'), the Minack Theatre. Built by Rowena Cade and set precipitously over the ocean, the theatre has been hosting productions since the 1930s.

The steep, stoney entrance leads down the cliff, to terraced grass seating, the stage, and Minack Rock, just beyond.

Cade was born in Spondon, Derbyshire shortly before the turn of the last century, to a rather well-to-do family, made such largely by her great-great grandfather, Joseph Wright (more commonly known as Wright of Derby), the famous 18th century painter. She lead quite a remarkable life even before the sirens' song called her to the coast, and for a time lived at Ellerslie, Sir Walter Scott's former home in Cheltenham, before training horses for the front lines in World War I. Widowed at a very young age, she purchased the headland at Porthcurno for £100, where she promptly set about building a stone cottage and cliffside garden to share with her mother. During the 1920s she became involved with the town's outdoor theater group and began sewing costumes and helping with stage design. Wanting to perform The Tempest in a dramatic outdoor location, the troop approached Cade with an idea: her cliffside gardens set above the pounding sea would make a most idyllic setting.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda (from The Tempest), 1916

Cade agreed, but the garden offered no seating, so she searched the surrounding bay for a most perfect spot upon which to create a theater space. That perfect spot along the rugged coast was the gully above Minack Rock. So there, over the course of six months and with the help of two local workmen, Cade, age 38, began the Minack Theatre. The Tempest, which opened in 1932, received a glowing review in The Times. And, as they say, the rest was history.

A circa 1930s photograph of Minack Theatre, which for early performances was lit by batteries, car headlights and power borrowed from Cade's cottage.

Over the years Cade continued to expand and develop the theater's dramatic setting (remarkably, the dangerous terrain claimed nothing more animate than a wheelbarrow) but her work was halted at the outbreak of World War II, when the site was taken over by a troop of a different sort - the British Army in need of a defense post. They secured the property with barbed wire... under which Cade would crawl in order to trim the grass and maintain the garden. At the end of the war, the Army's 'coastal clean-up' program nearly destroyed the theater, but Cade managed to intervene, even salvaging a gun post for use as a ticket booth.

Looking down to the stage and eastward, to the English Channel.

Looking westward, to the Atlantic Ocean.

The 1950s saw the full blossoming of the Minack, though the theater continued to run at a deficit, bailed out only by Cade's own savings. In order to cut costs, she began using concrete, rather than the more expensive granite she'd been using, to repair and expand the site. The new material allowed for a new level of detail and Cade incised much of the concrete with lettering and Celtic designs, as well as the names and dates of each play performed.

In the mid-1950s, Cade decided to build a proper backstage dressing area, and, to her luck, one day discovered twelve 15-foot beams washed up on the beach below the theater. Perfect! With her remarkable strength of body and spirit, she hoisted the beams up the cliff - by herself - only to then run into several customs agents on the beach looking for the timber, apparently lost from a Spanish freighter in the Channel. They asked if she'd seen the cargo, to which she admitted having collected a bit of firewood that morning. She diligently asked if they would like to come up and see it, but never believing she'd have had the ability to move them, they took their search elsewhere. "I didn't tell them a lie, now did I?" she's known to have asked her colleague, as they set about building the new dressing rooms.

The always-resourceful Rowena Cade.

Cade worked well into her mid-80s and upon her death, just shy of 90, she was still developing plans for the site. She left the Minack Theatre to a charitable trust, along with a nearby property and bungalow purchased several years earlier. With an increase in tourism, an extended summer performance season and a shop, the theater finally runs at a profit. The site is also open year-round now, too, visited mainly by the curious and garden enthusiasts who come to see the elaborate and thriving sub-tropical rockeries still blooming where planted, some 80 years on.

Below are images from recent productions at the Minack Theatre, which averages about 17 performances a summer, primarily by British acting troops, but by visiting troops from America, as well.

The Three Musketeers, performed by the Hertfordshire Players, 2006

Atmospheric effect, courtesy of Mother Nature, during the 2005 performance of Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters by the Ilkley Players

A moonlit Macbeth, performed by Mad Dogs & Englishmen, 2006.

Cornwall becomes 1830s Paris for the 2005 performance of La Bohème by the Beaufort Opera.

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