Mention the term “theatrical greats” and the name Rowena Cade probably wouldn’t be the first one to spring to mind. However, Ms Cade can lay claim to creating one of the most unique outdoor theatre spaces in the world; for her brainchild was the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, West Cornwall. This 750 seater, literally carved out of the Cornish cliffs, is just four miles from Land’s End and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who go to see a production or simply to look round and marvel that a frail woman and her faithful gardener had the vision, determination and ability to build this world renowned attraction. It has become the summit of many an amateur dramatic company’s ambition to put on a performance there and so it was that I recently found myself reprising the role of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in Tower Theatre’s production of Wolf Hall. It really is a once in a lifetime experience.
Actually, for me, it’s twice in a lifetime as I had already had the good fortune to play Mr Micawber there in Dickens’ David Copperfield. This was part of my debut for the same company in 2012 and left me with many happy memories and at least one anecdote on which I regularly dine out. This concerns one of the many tourists who make the long pilgrimage to the tip of the country in order to catch a performance. In this instance a long distance traveller from Japan turned up wanting to know if the show was the same one that the magician “had played in Las Vegas”. Cue much hilarity among the cast … but I digress.
Of course returning to somewhere so iconic was never going to be as mind blowing the second time round but the Minack is a very special place and it soon worked its magic. It was probably only as I travelled back to London that I had time to fully reflect on the full gloriousness of the experience and resolved to write it up.
I had decided, this time, to travel by train. The 5.5 hour journey was a good deal shorter than some flights I had been on recently and for company (totally unplanned but in the next seat) I had fellow cast member David Miller. An uneventful trip got us to Penzance at about 9.30pm and we headed off for our respective accommodation. Unfortunately the following morning was grey and ominous. Ironically after something like two months of sunshine and unremtting heat (both at home and in Cornwall) the weather had finally turned; as I breakfasted the rain began and persisted.
Working at the Minack is carried out to a very tight time schedule – particularly on the first couple of days – so rain or no rain there was nothing for it but to catch the bus to my final destination. It should take 45 minutes to get to Porthcurno but as Saturday is predominantly change over day for holidaymakers in this part of the world the bus soon became ensnared in traffic– if you have been to west Cornwall you will appreciate how difficult it must be driving a huge bus down single track roads in lashing rain with masses of vehicles all heading out of the peninsula. However, I had left in plenty of time so still managed to make it to my B&B to drop luggage and then head up the hill to the theatre before the appointed meeting time at noon.
Wonder of wonders the rain stopped just in time for my arrival though, it has to be said, as the theatre has its own microclimate you can never really be sure what’s going to happen next. Gradually the rest of the cast arrived and at midday we officially took posession of the space and began the “get in”. This involved forming a chain gang and passing everything down through the auditorium on the cliff face. This is the only way to achieve getting everything backstage and has to be done regardless of the meterological circumstances. We were lucky that it was dry throughout and also (very sensibly) minimal furnishings and props had been decided upon. We were using no scenery (apart from a decorative and symbolic Tudor rose); the Minack backdrop is sufficiently breathtaking and requires little adornment. The costumes were the bulkiest items – as I can attest my own weighed a ton; multiply that by a cast of 24 (plus those who were doubling up) and it was pretty back breaking. It all took less than an hour, though, and we found ourselves smiling with quiet satisfaction that we hadn’t fallen prey (as some groups invariably do) to bringing the proverbial kitchen sink with us. After all at the end of the week the even harder task of getting it all back up the cliffside late at night beckoned.
The rest of the weekend was spent in sorting out the dressing rooms (which must have the most wonderful view of any dressing rooms anywhere in the world – basking sharks anyone?) and in rehearsing and getting everything up to speed. Gradually everything fell into place and even though there had been a two week lay off all seemed to run smoothly. There was one minor rain delay but we were all hoping the weather would hold good for the performances and that we would not have to revert to the see-through plastic ponchos which are broken out when conditions warrant; performances are seldom, if ever, cancelled outright and 2018 had been a very good year….so far.
Performances run Monday to Friday (matinees on Tuesday/Thursday) and I am happy to report that we were almost entirely rain free – the only damp moment was at the start of the second half of the last night when it rained for about one minute and even then so lightly that it was more of a relief from the heat than anything else. There was one windy evening and one where it rained up until ten minutes before we started and then bucketed down again fifteen minutes after we had finished but, that aside, conditions were warm(ish), calm and, as clouds departed, starlit. The Thursday matinee was the hottest and driest and led to some uncomfortable moments in the heavy costumes. I even took to wearing my hat backstage (as exposed to the elements as the rest) but as it was of Tudor design with a large feather at least it was in keeping.
A full album of production photos can be found here
How was it? Well, if it was not quite as thrilling as the first time round (how could it be?) it was still very special indeed. The Minack requires a big level of performance – something to which I could not be accused of being a stranger – and my character was, fortunately, very conducive to being played up. I think the harder job was for those whose characters needed to be understated – well done to them for achieving this particularly difficult balancing act. We generally played the first half in fading light and it is then that seals could be seen in the waters below the backstage area. By Act 2 full darkness had descended; that’s when the venue works its real magic. An evening breeze blows in off the sea; the incoming tide crashes into the Cornish cliffs making cuelines difficult to hear but heightening the drama; lights from fishing boats can be seen bobbing and shimmering in the distance; the occasional bat flies by no doubt pursuing the moths attracted by the stage lights; the audience starts to disappear into coats and hats and huddle underneath blankets. There is a real sense of communion as players and audience share some very special moments. As we concluded our twentieth and last performance at about 10.45pm on Saturday evening I reflected that this was, indeed, a truly memorable way to round off my 150th production; huge thanks are due to all those onstage and off who helped to make it possible.
Audiences were very appreciative and very strong in number. We averaged 91% across the week (about 4.5k bums on seats) which for a straight play is extremely good and applause was loud and generous. I think most of us in the cast had at least one positive encounter with an enthusiastic audience member during the daytime. Certainly one couple staying in the same B&B as me came into the dining room and declared “Well we must be going up in the world; yesterday we had breakfast with Thomas Wyatt and Mark Smeaton – today it’s the Duke of Norfolk”. Indeed the B&B clientele seemed to consist almost entirely of audience members or Dutch costal path walkers … I’m still intrigued as to why one of the latter proceeded to top a bowl of fruit with HP sauce (perhaps they assumed it was chocolate).
Other than when doing the two matinees, we were free during the days and able to go off and visit the sights. A big group of us spent the day at Sennen Cove (ruined sandals clambering down to the beach) and at The Tate at St Ives (preferred the building to its contents) and on one day I took open top bus rides to tour Mousehole, Newlyn, St Michael’s Mount and Marizon. Post show entertainment and activities were also well to the fore, largely to allow time for the performance adrenaline to subside – the pub quiz (winning team!) and the Tower Taskmaster competition (winning team!) were particularly memorable. And of course there was plenty of time to consume pasties, hogs pudding, saffron buns, fairings, Newlyn crab, fish and chips, Rattler (cider), Korev (lager), Kelly’s ice cream and cream teas – absolutely jam first, then cream; it’s a wonder that by the end of the week some costumes weren’t straining.
That they weren’t may possibly be put down to the amount of physical energy expended. Simply getting from the dressing rooms to far stage left takes about two minutes and involves climbing up and down flights of stairs and passing along a clifftop walkway behind the stage. Nor when you are onstage can you afford to relax. Everything is made of concrete (including the usually wooden and sprung stage floor which has a reverse rake) and therefore is very hard on the calves and knees. Any moves have to start earlier than normal in order to reach the desired spot – especially with the weight of the costumes to factor in and a good deal of dialogue has to be played straight out with a tilted neck in order to catch the eyeline of those who are (seemingly literally) in the gods. Positioning can also be tricky. The strong spots are labelled A, B and C in the diagram (upstage section A is the absolute “sweet spot”) and if you don’t want to unsight large sections of the audience then avoid the hatched sections (D) at all costs.
I was particularly grateful for the RSC training I had received during the Dream project in 2016. This had taught me all about playing to a large auditorium without resorting to shouting and wild gesticulation and about how to command an audience’s attention particularly when – as here – there were some spectacular scenic diversions to potentially cause distraction. So it was definitely with a sense of confidence that I was able to deploy several techniques to good effect…. at least that’s what I thought.
After the Tuesday matinee I climbed the steep backstage steps from the stage door to the clifftop café. Halfway up there is a magnificent view of adjacent Porthcurno beach and I stopped to take a few pictures. I was joined by a couple also admiring the view who asked, “What’s down that way then?” I explained it was the route down to the backstage area and dressing rooms. “Oh,” came the reply. “We’ve just seen the show. It was extremely good. Were you in it?”
Any offers for ego reassembly will be gratefully received!