Theatre in the rocks
On Shakespeare Day, we are celebrating one particular performance of The Tempest on a summer’s evening in 1932 on the coast of Cornwall – and an inspiring lady with a dream that was to become a reality.
Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. The Tempest
Inspiring and creative people surround us here in Cornwall, and we consider ourselves fortunate to live by the rolling seas and nestled within the living history of a county filled with folklore and mystical tales.
One such tale is so incredible, that you would be forgiven for thinking that it couldn’t be true. Carved in the huge rocks next to Kynance Cove lies a theatre, the dream realised of Rowena Cade.
After World War One, Rowena, daughter of cotton mill owner and theatre enthusiast, discovered the Minack headland in Cornwall and bought it for £100. She built a house for herself and her mother there. The property became the setting for productions, and in 1929, Rowena – as wardrobe mistress and set designer – staged an open air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The show went so well that it was suggested that Rowena stage The Tempest, however her garden had nowhere to seat the audience. It was then that she considered the Minack Rock. Minack in Cornish means a rocky place and once was then a fisherman’s haven, not a stage for great performances – but that’s precisely what it was to become.
As the Atlantic Ocean roared beneath them and with the help of two men, Rowena cut granite by hand from boulders, and made terraces filled in with earth. The Tempest was performed in the summer of 1932 at The Minack Theatre, lit by batteries and car headlights.
To sit on the edge of the land and watch a performance, with the elements the backdrop and the beauty of the natural world working with the actors’ voices and movements – magnificent with the magic, emotions and pathetic fallacies set out by Shakespeare in the 16th century.
The theatre was hit very hard by World War Two, and for the duration was closed off with barbed wire. During this time, Rowena helped those evacuated from London to settle in Cornwall.
However, in the 1950s Rowena undertook the task of rebuilding the theatre with Billy Rawlings – determined to repair it and improve it, separating her own house from the Minack. With the cost of granite now so high, Rowena used cement and an old screwdriver to embellish the surfaces with Celtic design and collected sand on her back, as well as 15ft beams from the shoreline.
Rowena continued to be dedicated to the theatre until she died in 1983. She never received a penny for what she did until 1976, when aged over 80-years-old, she gave the theatre to a Charitable Trust. With expansion, the theatre soon broke even and continues to thrive, with a new play every week for up to 17 weeks over the summer season.
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