All eyes turned to the sea where, just to the left of the actor’s head, a basking shark was swimming, quite leisurely, past. Welcome to the Minack Theatre in the far west of Cornwall.
Armed with thermos flask, cushion and all-weather gear, I was in (if ‘in’ is the right word when you’re outdoors) the most thrilling open-air theatre in the country, probably the world. The word ‘meynek’ means rocky place in Cornish, and the Minack, perched on cliffs high above the Atlantic, is hewn from the granite of a rocky outcrop near Land’s End. Its ‘seats’ are chiselled out of the same granite, hence the cushion; its roof is the sky, hence the thermos flask and clothes.
The production had attracted the usual capacity crowd, some of whom, like me, were dressed in attire more appropriate for an arctic expedition. Seasoned visitors to the Minack know it becomes very cold when the sun disappears behind the ocean.
Today’s audiences, however, have it easy compared to those who went to the first production on 16th August 1932. After buying their tickets at a table on the lawn, they had to clamber down a gorse-lined gully to reach their seats. If they were at the back, as I was, they would have been sitting on sloping grass. Let’s hope they took their cushions.
And they would have watched The Tempest acted on a stage lit by batteries, car headlights and the feeble power brought down from a nearby house.
I bet they wouldn’t have minded one bit as the moon shone and the Minack theatre worked its magic for the first time.
The play I had come to see was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. David had just been wondering whether he would turn out to be the hero of his own life or ‘whether that station will be held by anybody else,’ when the fishy extra appeared. I think the matter had been decided.
It was strangely quiet for a few seconds when the actor temporarily lost his momentum. He recovered and continued, recounting the ‘sage women’ who declared David ‘was destined to be unlucky in life’. At this point, the gannets, not wanting to be overshadowed by a shark, entered stage right, falling from the sky in a flawless impersonation of shooting stars.
They darted into the water, vanishing for what seemed an impossibly long while. But time plays tricks in this amphitheatre at the edge of the earth, and the birds re-appeared, like actors resurrected from the dead, ready to provide in-flight entertainment in the next production.
‘Never work with children, basking sharks or gannets’: not quite W. C. Fields’ words but good advice for anyone planning to perform at the Minack, where nature always steals the show.
As the sun set and Dickens’ story played out, landscape and theatre merged in exciting and unexpected ways. The shipwreck scene was unforgettable, as actors and audience stared in despair at the imaginary, and yet frighteningly real, waves below. Close by, ancient-grey rocks broke the fourth wall and echoed the tombstones onstage.
The drama ended and I thought about when Dickens visited Cornwall, nearly two hundred years ago. His friend John Forster, who accompanied him, recorded that they went ‘into the strange caverns on the gloomy sea shore… and up to the top of giddy heights where the unspeakably green water was roaring, I don’t know how many hundred feet below!’ This must have been in his mind when Dickens wrote those scenes of disaster at sea in David Copperfield.
Remaining in my seat after the curtain of darkness had fallen on that night’s revels, I reflected on what Dickens and his friends had experienced at Land’s End:
‘Of all the impressions brought away, I doubt if any were the source of such deep emotion to us all as a sunset we saw at Land’s-end… We viewed it together from the top of the rock projecting farthest into the sea, which each in his turn declared to have no parallel in memory.’
Who could disagree?
As the moon shone across the bay, the rocks at the Minack had worked their magic for me, as they had for Dickens and that first audience almost eighty years ago.
The actors had melted into thin air, the gannets had gone to wherever was home to roost and the basking shark had dissolved in the deep. It was eerily quiet. For a few moments that evening, past and present, fact and fantasy, characters, actors, audience and animals had co-existed in a place outside space and time. Somewhere just to the left of the actors’ heads.
Gayle Wood is a travel and nature writer living in West Penwith. In recent years, she has travelled West to Canada and East to Singapore. At the moment, you’ll usually find her back in Cornwall, on the top of a little green hill looking out at over Atlantic. She believes ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new places but in having new eyes.’