The Minack Theatre Experience: It Started With Shakespeare

The famous cliff-top theater made for family and friends
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
August 12, 2018 Last Updated: August 12, 2018

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet air, that give delight and hurt not
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.— from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

Caliban, in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” talks to Stephano and Trinculo about the mysterious music that wafts around the island. On Aug.16, 1932, “The Tempest” was the first production put on at The Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, Cornwall, in England. As this very scene was acted out on The Minack’s stage, lit by batteries and car headlights, Caliban’s words could well have mimicked the audience’s experience of the show, or any produced at The Minack. For The Minack Theatre’s stage is set by—or some might even say, on—the sea.

Ladies and gentlemen watch “The Tempest” in 1932, the first performance on The Minack Theatre’s stage. (The Minack Theatre)
The cast of the first performance at The Minack Theatre: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in 1932. (The Minack Theatre)

The Minack Theatre’s productions are played over an ever-changing panorama; the casts’ voices and sometimes orchestral music carry out to the audience under open skies and over undulating waves, with passing ships and the occasional pod of dolphins.

Nature’s prelude begs to take your breath away before the show has even begun.

“There’s no scenery needed for this amazing venue. … We could see and hear the waves crashing onto the rocks beneath us, and watched cormorants skim the sea’s surface, and gulls circle above us as we waited for the performance to begin (and during, I have to admit!)” said Carolyn J. from Caerphilly in Wales in her Tripadvisor review of one of the recent shows.

The Minack Theatre stage sits along the Porthcurno coastline, with its ever-changing scenery. (The Minack Theatre)
The Cornish cliffs of Porthcurno where The Minack Theatre sits. (The Minack Theatre)

Over 110,000 visitors a year travel from far and wide, up the narrow winding country lanes, to see a show on the stage cut into the Cornish cliffs. It’s on a granite outcrop just a few miles from Land’s End, the farthermost point of the southwest of England. Another 170,000 people come to learn the story of the theater and to see the scenery, according to figures on The Minack’s website.

However, Rowena Cade, the woman who hand-built the theater, made it simply to put on shows with family and friends, “never with any eye to the future of what she was going to do with it,” said Phil Jackson, The Minack Theatre’s manager, by phone. But “it took up 40 years of her life after that,” he said.

Rowena Cade taking a break on the cliffs of The Minack Theatre. (Cary Wolinsky)

How Rowena Cade Came to Cornwall

Cade’s family came from Derbyshire, in the north of England, where they’d lived for 300 years. Born in Spondon, Derbyshire, in 1893, Cade was one of four children. Her father owned the cotton mill, and her great-great-grandfather was Joseph Wright, the well-known English landscape and portrait painter.

Cade’s love for theater seemed firmly set at age 8 when she played Alice in “Through the Looking Glass” for her family. At age 9, the family moved to Cheltenham. When her father died in World War I, the family home was sold and the family dispersed. Cade and her mother moved around a lot, eventually settling in Cornwall where she bought the whole of the Minack headland (cape) for a mere 100 pounds, about $130.

In Cornwall, Cade started making costumes and props for a local amateur theater group, something she’d previously done for her family in productions in their garden. Cade’s nieces and nephews performed in the local production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When the group wanted to perform the 1932 production in the woods, Cade decided instead that her terraced cliff-top garden would be a worthy stage for the show, and that’s how The Minack Theatre began.

In the winter of 1931 and at the beginning of 1932, Cade and her gardener Billy Rawlings started making the lower terrace. They moved mountains of earth and granite boulders. It took months to just rough out the stage. The theater is largely concrete, made from local beach sand, which Cade and Rawlings brought up in sacks via the about 90 steps they built into the cliff face.

Rowena Cade, rock in hand, as she builds what will become The Minack Theatre. (The Minack Theatre)
Billy Rawlings with a wheelbarrow of rocks. (The Minack Theatre)
Rowena Cade pours concrete made from local beach sand into a mold for a pillar. (The Minack Theatre)

Locals would often see Cade climbing steadily up the cliff, holding buckets of concrete or carrying sacks of sand on her back. At one point, Charles Angove, Rawlings’s cousin, who also helped on occasion, is said to have seen Cade single-handedly haul up the steep cliff 12 15-foot timber poles that had all been washed up on the beach below.

Rowena Cade embellishing the dressing room arches. (The Minack Theatre)
Dressing room window details at The Minack Theatre. (The Minack Theatre)

Cade and Rawlings decorated some of the seats with the names of the performances alongside intricate designs. At first, for the annual productions, she designed and built complete concrete sets, sometimes with the addition of Greek and Roman pillars, parts of which, if not needed, would then be knocked down to start afresh for the next year’s production. What remains of these sets are some arches and altars from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Numbered theater seats on the cliff record the performances, starting with 1932’s “The Tempest,” 1933’s “Twelfth Night,” and in 1935 a Tudor play called “The Play of the Weather,” an apt title for The Minack’s stage. (The Minack Theatre)
The Minack Theatre terraces post-World War II. (The Minack Theatre)

The Minack Theatre Experience

The Minack Theatre was certainly made with passion but, perhaps, not made to be a working theater. “It’s a very randomly built theater,” Jackson said. “The stage is going in the wrong direction. It’s the wrong shape, and the seating goes in a different direction. You would never design a theater like this one, but that’s what people come to see: the quirkiness of it.”

And, quirks there are aplenty. Although the theater has the appearance of an amphitheater, it lacks a back wall, the Atlantic Ocean taking its place. And, thus, any sounds can simply disappear. The only saving grace of the theater’s acoustics is the granite wings that Jackson says allow the sound in, that is, if the weather is willing. Now, the theater has a sound system to counteract noise. But before, cast members must have had to shout.

While the sound can be tweaked with technology, one thing that can’t be controlled on The Minack’s stage is the natural elements. “This year we’re going through a very hot summer, and the matinees are extremely hot, so that’s 700 people on the side of a cliff with no shade, baking in the theater. The actors are suffering in their coats and wigs if they are doing a costume piece, and the audience are falling like flies. We have to do a lot of first aid,” Jackson said.

“A lot of people who come to us are not real theatergoers; they’re coming here for “The Minack experience,” so we like to think we are introducing people to live theater,” Jackson said. That’s partly why the theater keeps prices low. In July, “Candide,” Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, was produced to celebrate the centenary of his birth. It had a 28-piece orchestra and a professional cast, but tickets were priced at only 14 pounds, about $18.20.

Another part of the experience is undoubtedly the scenery. People do make the trip just to pose. Chinese tourists have been known to pay for a ticket just to stay 10 minutes for a selfie and then leave.

A Working Theater

But The Minack Theatre is more than just scenic fodder for Instagram feeds. Jackson would like people to learn the story behind The Minack Theatre and has a plea: “We wish people would remember first and foremost we are a working theater.”

An orchestra and audience at The Minack Theatre. (The Minack Theatre)

Jackson keeps the six-month season varied for the audiences, who are not only tourists but also a regular core of locals who come to the theater every week. As various companies rent The Minack Theatre stage, it sees a selection of opera, classical music, operetta, comedy, dramas, musicals, and always two or three Shakespeare productions.

Some upcoming shows include Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Pirates of Penzance,” which is actually set in The Minack Theatre’s locale. Then there’s the Mount Charles Band, which performs for “Proms at The Minack,” and a version of Bizet’s most famous opera reimagined as “La Tragédie de Carmen.”

Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed on The Minack Theatre’s stage in July of 2016. (Lynn Batten)

And the plays that work well on this theater’s unique stage? Jackson says, “Shakespeare is what should work here, and does work here. … Shakespeare obviously works best because the language was written to be declaimed in an open-air space. The language works beautifully here.”

The Times newspaper review of the Minack theater’s debut production: “The Tempest,” in 1932. (Minack Theater)
The Times newspaper review of The Minack Theatre’s debut production, “The Tempest,” in 1932. (The Minack Theatre)
Rowena Cade sits on a seat she made at The Minack Theatre. (The Minack Theatre)