The incredible 90-year legacy of Cornwall's Minack Theatre

  • Watch Charlotte Gay's report

The Minack Theatre in Porthcurno is celebrating 90 years since it first opened its gates to the public.

The iconic Cornish landmark premiered its first show on 16 August, 1932 after Rowena Cade offered her cliff garden as the location for a local production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

But little did she know she and her small team had created Britain’s most unlikely permanent theatre venue.

In the early 1920s Rowena Cade and her widowed mother came to Cornwall from Cheltenham and bought the Minack Headland above Porthcurno. Credit: The Minack Theatre

Executive director of the Minack, Zoe Curnow, says when Rowena Cade built most parts of the theatre "she didn't build them to still be here 90 years later".

Ms Cade, the master builder, and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, excavated tons of earth and rock in the winter between 1931 and 1932 and formed the basis of the Minack we know today.

Ms Cade later described the work as "a good enough, rough and ready job for what we thought would be one week of playing".

Zoe says the challenge now is preserving the theatre for decades to come.

She said: "There's no reason why this this can't last for many more years to come. We're built out of a great substance. Actually, sitting here in the corner of this cliff, and we are very much looking at how we preserve the Minack and take it forward but within respect of its environment."

The Minack has only closed twice in its history, for WW2 and during the pandemic. Credit: The Minack Theatre

The Minack looked very different in its first year with no permanent stage nor steps to help people down to the site. The box office was a table at the edge of the lawn in front of Minack House and both actors and the audience had to clamber down a steep, narrow path between furze bushes to reach the theatre.

Today, nearly a quarter of a million people a year visit the theatre on the fringe of West Cornwall every year.

Actor Mark Harandon has performed at the open-air theatre as gardener Billy Rawlings for 10 years.

He says the pair had an "interesting" relationship as two workmates with lots of "drive and determination" to overcome a lot of obstacles - which included the coastguard throwing a lot of their building work over the cliff as it clashed with the former coast path.

Billy Rawlings was initially only hired for three weeks but spent the rest of his life helping Rowena Cade build the Minack Credit: The Minack Theatre

Mark says he learnt a lot about the pair when he met Billy's daughter and granddaughter, and soon learnt Rowena was "quite a character" and often "challenged" Billy by always wanting to do more to the site.

"He would say 'well, if you're going to be like that you can do it yourself' and then other weeks she would say 'well, if you're going to be like that, then don't bother coming in on Monday because you're sacked'. And every week they'd be together as if nothing had ever happened."

A special exhibition dedicated to the 90th anniversary is on display at the Minack and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the first production at the open air theatre, will return from 21- 25 August.