By Amanda Castleman
One of the world’s most dramatic open-air entertainment venues sprang back into action this week. At The Minack Theatre, arches frame an ocean backdrop just three miles from Land’s End, mainland England’s westernmost point. The sea-cliff auditorium may resemble a Roman ruin, but it dates back just eight decades. In a further twist, the grounds teem with subtropical succulents, thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that even nurtures palm trees in Cornwall.
The theater under the stars is hosting Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall this season, as well as “Taming of The Shrew” performances by Shakespeare’s Globe troupe (Sept 9-13). It’ll also mount a stage version of “Babe, The Sheep-Pig,” a story that wowed moviegoers in 1995 (June 10-14). But its most compelling show may be the story of the space itself, in the new daytime play “Moving Heaven and Earth: The Making of Minack.”
Once just a steep, heather-sprigged gully over the Atlantic, the site bloomed into a stunning 750-seat theater thanks to Rowena Cade (1893-1983). In the 1920s, this strong, unconventional woman bought the headland at Minack — which means “rocky place” in Cornish — for the equivalent of $153. She built a granite house and soon became involved in local theater, one of the main sources of entertainment there at the time. It took six months to carve out a rough platform and tiered seating with the help of two craftsmen. Finally, she unleashed “The Tempest” in 1932, a performance illuminated by car headlights and only slightly upstaged by the moon shining on the bay.
Cade continued her work over decades, despite World War II almost erasing the coastal venue. She scavenged beams from a shipwrecked Spanish freighter and learned to etch cement with a screwdriver when she ran out of money for granite. This labor of love kept her toiling, no matter how awful the winter weather, into her mid-80s. Today the site, managed by a charitable trust, welcomes 80,000 people to performances and another 100,000 to visit the grounds annually.
In “Moving Heaven and Earth,” local storyteller Mark Harandon recreates the character of Billy Rawlings, who spent 40 years assisting Cade as gardener and handyman. She recalled: “Occasionally he had a man with him to blast rocks or move ‘grounders’, but he practically made the Minack Theatre single-handed, with only the aid of a tough, ageing woman, his employer and friend.”
Catch a glimpse of the theater’s history each Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. through September. Admission to the play is free with daytime entry ($6 adult, $3 teen, free age 11 and under). Reach the theater via the towns of Porthcurno and Penzance in Cornwall on England’s history-soaked south coast.
Photos: Musical acts and plays take the cliffside Minack Theatre stage at night. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)
The Minack Theatre is near Pednvounder Beach on Cornwall’s relatively warm southeastern coast. (Photo by Adam Burton/Visit Britain)
A daytime audience hears music at The Minack Theatre in Cornwall, England. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)