Cornwall

The Minack Theatre

Theatre as you’ve never experienced it before. Carved out of the Cornish cliffs by one woman and her gardener, The Minack is a triumph of vision over reality. Pack up a picnic and head to Cornwall’s far west for a taste of theatre under the stars – and quite possibly one of the most stunning backdrops on the planet.

The Minack Theatre: All the World’s a Stage…

The Minack Theatre

Looking out at her cliff-top garden one day, it dawned on Rowena: the gorsey gulley with the sea beyond and views across to the rocky, brackeny promontories of the Cornish coast was the perfect setting.

  • Built with the help of Billy Rawlings, her ‘quick, strong, courageous and tenacious’ gardener
  • Now thousands of visitors come from around the world
  • Be prepared to brave the elements

Picture the scene: it’s summer 1932, out on the cliffs at Porthcurno, near Land’s End, a stage is lit by batteries, car headlights and a feeble power supply brought down from a nearby house. Theatre-goers collect their tickets from a table in the garden before clambering down a gorse-lined path. The moon shines on the bay, the players walk out under a silvery spotlight, and so the magic that is The Minack is born.

Rowena Cade, recently moved to Cornwall, had bought Minack headland (Cornish for ‘rocky place’) for the princely sum of £100 and built Minack House for her and her mother to live in. Entertainment in those days being a do-it-yourself affair, family and friends put on follies and plays to entertain one another. A friend put on production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in nearby Crean valley. The play was a success and plans were afoot to stage another, bigger production: The Tempest, this time. Crean valley's meadows and woodlands had been perfect for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest required somewhere with an altogether wilder magic. Looking out at her cliff-top garden one day, it dawned on Rowena: the gorsey gulley with the sea beyond and views across to the rocky, brackeny promontories of the Cornish coast was the perfect setting.

With the help of Billy Rawlings, her ‘quick, strong, courageous and tenacious’ gardener and handyman, Rowena constructed gardens and terraces, lawns and paths on the cliffs around Minack House to stage the play. Following the popularity of the performance – which earned favourable reviews in The Times – the cliff-side amphitheatre grew and grew. Seating was put in place. Rowena developed her own technique for working with cement, using the tip of an old screwdriver to decorate the surfaces with lettering and intricate Celtic designs before they set.

Minack Theatre

Rowena and Billy worked tirelessly in all weathers, fetching sand from Porthcurno beach, carried in bags on their backs and latterly in cars, soon rusted out by the sea salt. Tom Angove, Billy’s "Builder's Mate" recalled how Rowena single-handedly carried twelve 15ft beams from the shoreline right up to the theatre. And so Rowena Cade worked on, becoming a familiar figure with her wheelbarrow on the cliffs, until she was in her mid-eighties.

Today thousands of visitors from around the world come to visit the breathtaking theatre on the cliffs. Shakespeare has remained a central part of the programme, but alongside The Bard, The Minack makes it its business to stage a variety of performances from established and less experienced theatre companies.

As a schoolchild I remember sitting enraptured, shoulders turning pink under the blazing sun, by the Kneehigh Theatre's riotous, anarchic renditions of Peer Gynt and Tregeagle; half spellbound, half scared witless by the band of masked players and musicians weaving their magic on the stage. Recently, I’ve braved June performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the lashing rain, cagoules pulled up around our ears as howling winds wrest Puck's horns from his head. But my enduring memory of The Minack is on a late summer evening, as the last rays of sun cast orange streaks across the sky. Gasps rush through the audience, fingers wag excitedly towards the sea, and even the performers have to turn to look out to where a school of dolphins are playing in the waves, adding the final touch of magic to another enchanted night at The Minack.

The Minack is proof that all the world – even Cornwall's wild, sea-sprayed granite cliffs – really is a stage; and life is all the more exciting for it.

The performance is just one part of the experience. A trip to The Minack begins with packing up a picnic. There are plenty of local farm shops, butchers and grocers in the area, so there is no excuse for anything less than a truly epic picnic. (Lentern’s butchers in Penzance do a mean scotch egg and their pork pies are the staple of any self-respecting hamper. McFaddens in St Just are first choice for pasties.) Pick up a punnet of juicy strawberries, a fat tub of clotted cream, a bottle of fizz and some plastic champagne flutes and you’re good to go (Cornish Camel Valley is the king of fizz if you’re feeling flush).

As a Minack-goer in the know, you will also have packed blankets, cushions (wrapped in bin bags to guard against the wet), suncream, cagoules, hats, scarves, gloves and sunglasses as standard. Yes, the weather is rather unpredictable so it’s best to pack for all eventualities. Even when the heavens open, the show must go on! It’s only on very rare cases that a performance at The Minack is cancelled due to bad weather, so be prepared to brave the elements – it’s all part of the fun.

Contact the Minack Theatre - 01736810181 | Find out what's on

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